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Market report: Potatoes

As Americans shunned starchy foods, potato farmers decreased their acreage, cutting supply to keep pace with lower demand. Despite these efforts, Idaho produced more potatoes than it could sell in 2004, and prices dropped to new lows, notes Doug Gross, former chair of the Idaho Potato Commission, a commodity group.

Gross adds that in the last several months, demand has increased among foodservice establishments. However, the 2005 crop forecast is nonetheless 10 percent lower than 2004.

Lower supply and an uptick in usage mean growers are starting to get higher prices for their crops. Coupled with increased transportation costs and inflation, Gross predicts wholesale prices to distributors and operators will be pushed up. Even though growers will absorb some of those costs, Alberto Jerardo of the USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that fresh potato prices may be 16.5 percent higher in 2006.

Processed potatoes are another story. Most manufacturers of fries and other products form pre-season contracts with growers, locking in a price from the previous year. So operators shouldn’t expect to see much change in frozen and dehydrated potato prices.

Despite price hikes for fresh, potatoes are still a high-margin item in restaurants. Gross advises operators not to change their specs, because customers crave consistency. And the colorful specialty potatoes—now being planted in greater numbers—add value and sophistication to the menu for relatively little cost.

More than just carbs

It’s true that potatoes are a good source of carbohydrates.

But that doesn’t mean they’re fattening. An average-size baked russet potato (5.3 oz.) contributes only 9 percent of the daily value for carbohydrates, has 100 calories, is relatively low in sodium and contains virtually no fat and zero cholesterol. Plus, the carbs in potatoes are the complex kind, meaning they come along with fiber and essential nutrients; vitamin C and potassium are particularly abundant. These compounds may help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and certain cancers.

Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes have the added benefit of supplying beta carotene, a potent antioxidant said to have cancer-fighting properties. They also contain anthocyanin, the pigment responsible for the red, purple and blue colors found in fruits and vegetables. Anthocyanin is the phytochemical in blueberries and red wine that is thought to play a role in preventing certain diseases.

Of course, frying any kind of potato in oil boosts the calorie and fat content. But operators now have plenty of fresh and processed alternatives to the traditional French fry, and customers are seeking out these healthier options more often. The latest fresh entry is the low-carb potato—a variety that was developed by potato growers at the height of low-carb mania. This potato has recently been introduced to the marketplace but has not yet been tested in all cooking and processing applications.

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