Better-for-you products leverage spuds’ healthy qualities

By Heath Applebaum

They’ve been a preferred staple in people’s diets for more than 20,000 years, yet the nutritional value of potatoes remains misunderstood by many consumers. 

The potato plays an important role for Canadian farmers and food manufacturers and farm gate receipts alone amount to approximately $1.1-billion per year.

The potato plays an important role for Canadian farmers and food manufacturers and farm gate receipts alone amount to approximately $1.1-billion per year.

The potato plays an important role for Canadian farmers and food manufacturers. Growing some 4.6 million tonnes of potatoes per year on about 350,000 acres of land, Canada is currently ranked the world’s 14th largest potato producer. The farm gate receipts alone amount to approximately $1.1-billion per year.

To boost those numbers further, the delicious, affordable and versatile stem tuber will have to overcome some lingering stereotypes that owe largely to ways that potatoes have traditionally been prepared and served, and which overshadow the vegetable’s nutritional merits.

Canada grows 4.6 million tonnes of potatoes per year on about 350,000 acres of land, and McCain's field management team can attest to the importance of this sector.

Canada grows 4.6 million tonnes of potatoes per year on about 350,000 acres of land, and McCain's field management team can attest to the importance of this sector.

Joe Brennan, board director at the Alliance for Potato Research and Education, says, “Often the bad nutritional vibe that potatoes get can be attributed to two key things. Firstly, what they are served with, such smothering them in butter or sour cream, and secondly, how they are prepared. The potato itself is not high in fat.” 

While nutritional differences certainly exist between the classic white potato, and its red-skinned and sweet potato relatives, Canadians should know that a medium-sized white potato contains no fat, no sodium or cholesterol and just 120 calories. Potatoes are also a great source for complex carbohydrates, an essential part of a healthy balanced diet. 

An impressive source of essential vitamins and minerals, one potato provides 50 per cent of the daily recommendation for vitamin C, eight per cent of dietary fiber, eight per cent of calcium, two per cent of iron and more potassium than two bananas, according to the USDA Nutritional Database.

Potatoes can go from the farm to a packaged, finished product in less than 12 hours.

Potatoes can go from the farm to a packaged, finished product in less than 12 hours.

Consumer demands for healthier potato options have prompted savvy food manufacturers to now bake their products, use healthier oils and reduce sodium. As a result, the potato appears to be making a comeback, says Calla Farn, vice president at McCain Foods Canada. In fact, “The retail market for frozen potatoes grew by five per cent in dollar sales for the year ending December 2014,” she adds. 

McCain is now selling low fat and low salt versions of french fries and introducing a number of sweet potato and red skin potato products with different cuts and bolder flavours. “While Canadians continue to love their fries, they are also interested in experimenting with some different cuts and potato types,” Farn says.

In Canada, potatoes are typically planted between late April and early June, depending on location and weather conditions. McCain sources potatoes from nearly 170 different growers across four provinces; PEI, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Alberta, with harvesting starting as early as mid-July.

Potatoes can go from the farm to a packaged, finished product in less than 12 hours. From there, they are either shipped directly to grocery stores or sent to cold storage until they are ready for distribution.

Consumer demands for healthier potato options have prompted savvy food manufacturers to now bake their products, use healthier oils and reduce sodium.

Consumer demands for healthier potato options have prompted savvy food manufacturers to now bake their products, use healthier oils and reduce sodium.

The potato industry is broken down in three main sectors: the processing sector (to manufacture products like fries, hash browns and chips), the fresh potato sector for table consumption, and seed potatoes. 

Based on the 2012-13 crop year, Canada exported approximately $155-million worth of seed and table potatoes and $996-million in processed products, making the spud an important contribution to the Canadian agricultural sector.