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off the charts

No, Dietary Guidelines Don’t Support Adding White Potatoes to WIC

We’ve highlighted one harmful provision (school meals) in the 2015 agriculture spending bill that the House Appropriations Committee approved yesterday.  Here’s another:  it overrides the science-based process for deciding which foods the WIC program provides by requiring WIC to offer white potatoes.

Some proponents of the change cite the federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to support their position, but, in a recent op-ed, four members of the scientific advisory committee that produced the report upon which those guidelines are based — Harvard’s Eric Rimm, Johns Hopkins’ Lawrence J. Appel, Columbia’s Christine L. Williams, and Northwestern’s Linda V. Van Horn — argue forcefully against the House’s action.  As nutrition experts, they explain that the guidelines “do not justify altering WIC to allow the inclusion of white potatoes.”  Here are some excerpts:

White potatoes are plentiful, inexpensive and can offer potassium and fiber if consumed with the skin on, but compared to other more nutrient-dense vegetables they are of limited benefit, especially in a nutritionally vulnerable population. They should not be added to the WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) package or included within the basket of fruits and vegetables that can be purchased with WIC vouchers....

The exclusion of white potatoes from WIC makes sense.  Pregnant women, new mothers and their children derive the greatest health benefit from eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables but data from the most recent national health and nutrition evaluation surveys reveal an unhealthy imbalance of white potatoes in the diet of the average woman of childbearing age, already contributing nearly 45% of vegetable intake (including 15% as French fries).  While white potatoes contain some important nutrients and dietary fiber (when eaten with the skin on), there are many other vegetable sources of not only these nutrients, especially dietary fiber, but many other under-consumed nutrients as well.

More importantly, a growing body of evidence reveals that this starchy, energy-dense vegetable is associated with weight gain, obesity and diabetes, especially among vulnerable, low-income populations.  Including white potatoes in the WIC package would potentially contribute to further disparities by provoking increased consumption of white potatoes instead of healthier fruits and vegetables....

In 2015 new dietary guidelines will be released that will further address the nutritional benefits or risks associated with specific types of fruits and vegetables in a healthy eating pattern.  To alter the WIC food package that favors increased intake of white potatoes prior to consideration of the evidence that this will benefit and not harm WIC beneficiaries is premature at best.

The Senate Appropriations Committee-approved bill also interferes with WIC’s science-based process, to which it has adhered throughout its 40-year history, by requiring WIC to offer white potatoes.  But the Senate’s approach is preferable to the House’s because, under it, the next science-based review of WIC foods would determine whether WIC would continue to offer white potatoes.

That review isn’t expected to be completed until late in 2015, after the 2015 Dietary Guidelines are released, but eventually reverting to a science-based process for selecting WIC foods is important.  Facing a choice between the House and Senate provisions, policymakers should adopt the Senate’s approach in their final bill.