Back To School

Gone are the days when Canadians ate potatoes at every meal—from home fries at breakfast to potato salad for lunch and mashed at supper. For many Canadians in 2010, their single daily intake of potatoes may be a bag of chips. Yet the humble potato remains a staple in most kitchens, even if the number being consumed has declined.

Several factors were identified by researchers and statisticians as the cause for the decline in potato consumption. The decline in the number of family members currently residing in one household across the country is considered the most probable reason. With large families becoming more and more uncommon there is no need to purchase large bags of potatoes. Instead, smaller, two- to four-person households may only buy one potato per person in bulk during a trip to the grocery store. 

Another factor that could account for the decline in potato consumption is the increasingly diverse ethnic make-up of the country as newcomers to Canada choose to continue to eat the foods in keeping with their culture, such as rice or noodles.

As well, the low-carbohydrate diet craze of the 1990s and early 2000s tagged potatoes as a food to be avoided. Efforts to educate the public about the nutritional value of potatoes have paid off in recent years, but consumption levels have not rebounded, and experts agree more education may be needed.

In a study on the shift observed in potato consumption conducted in 2003, Statistics Canada reported half of Canada’s potato production goes to the fresh market and the other half to processed foods. Consumption of fresh potatoes showed a steady decline, as did the consumption of frozen potato products, such as French fries. Processed potato products, such as pressed potato chips and dehydrated products, showed a slight increase. So, what should the industry be doing to stop the downward slide?

Education is Key

“Potatoes are a vegetable and although they are a source of carbohydrates they are different from bread,” explains Kendra Mills, marketing director for the Prince Edward Island Potato Board. “We need to view the changes in consumption trends as an opportunity to educate consumers about the high nutritional value of potatoes and how they can fit into many meal plans.”

Mills says the greatest challenge the industry faces is providing education on nutrition and user-friendly cooking options to new Canadians and other consumers who have moved away from eating potatoes regularly. 

An opportunity for education exists every time a consumer brings a bag of spuds home. Mills says packaging can be an important tool for the education of consumers as it offers the perfect opportunity to provide nutritional information, serving suggestions, or recipes directly to consumers, but, she notes, if consumers buy in bulk that opportunity is lost.

Jeff Jennings, a private consultant for Strategic Direction Consulting Inc., based in Pennfield, New Brunswick, and former member of the Potato Innovation Network, says education is also the key to maintaining and increasing potato consumption levels. “A national campaign to educate the public on how healthy potatoes are and to introduce niche varieties as something other than gourmet meal faire could improve consumption trends,” says Jennings. “It could be a fun campaign to encourage kids to try other forms of potatoes and not just French fries.”

Jennings says a campaign that targets children has the potential to halt the decrease in the consumption of potatoes and, perhaps, may lead to moderate increases.

“Industry needs to address the issues surrounding consumer tastes and that isn’t being done,” he says. “Education is being left to the grocery stores that are selling the potatoes, or to the chefs at fancy restaurants, but there is a great need for all members of the potato industry to work together to get the message out that potatoes are healthy and nutritious.”

However, Jennings says if consumer consumption continues to decline, growers may find lucrative markets for alternate uses of potatoes. “Farmers may have to explore niche markets in the future, such as specialty varieties, but also for alternate uses such as starch production, bioplastics, neutraceuticals, and pharmaceuticals.”

Know Your Consumer

Recently, researchers at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro attempted to verify or disprove the assumption that consumers believe potatoes are unhealthy. “There has been a general decrease in potato consumption in North America over the last five years,” says researcher, Gefu Wang-Pruski. “It seems the general feeling is that potatoes are unhealthy.” Based on that assumption, Wang-Pruski set up six focus groups to observe the individuals who do the cooking and grocery shopping in a household. Members of the focus groups were evenly distributed across gender and income levels and were selected from rural as well as medium- and high-density urban areas. Her findings were surprising— and hopeful.

 “We did not find any significant opinion that potatoes are unhealthy, but we did find consumers don’t like large packages of potatoes or paper packaging.” After disproving the theory consumers consider potatoes are unhealthy, Wang-Pruski observed reduced family size and an increasing number of alternative food choices directly relates to the decrease in potato consumption. Also, she notes, the survey respondents do not like plastic bags because they think the bags are not environmentally friendly, which leaves packagers in a quandary over what type of packaging consumers will accept.

Based on feedback from her focus groups, Wang-Pruski reported consumers do understand potatoes are healthy, but they are choosey about the size and type they want to eat, which indicates meeting consumers’ needs may be important to consumption rate. She said her groups did not like potatoes that were too large or too small—they preferred a medium-sized potato and they want size consistency whether in bulk or in bags.

 “Consumers would also like to know what variety they are buying,” Wang-Pruski adds. She says responses to the survey suggested if consumers find a flavour of potato they enjoy eating, they would like to be able to purchase that same variety again.

Wang-Pruski also reports fresh potatoes are preferred over partially cooked, pre-packaged offerings, and, in terms of consumption, over 50% of the study participants eat potatoes once per week or less, while pasta or rice is consumed one to two times per week. Participants would serve the potatoes baked, boiled, mashed, or as hash browns—they never made scalloped or whipped potatoes and they would only serve potato salad and chips “sometimes.”

Wang-Pruski agrees consumer education needs to improve because there are still some misconceptions that need to be corrected. “In general, people believe potatoes are good for you, but they also believe they are starchy,” she comments. She also reports her groups believe buying potatoes produced locally is the best choice.

Based on her research, which did not show a substantial dislike of potatoes by consumers, Wang-Pruski says there is no need to panic about decreases in potato consumption. “People still believe that potatoes are good,” she says. “On a scale of five with five being highest, the score was four indicating that consumers view potatoes as a good food.”

With the increase in food choices available in supermarkets, the potato industry must take initiatives to ensure this nutritious food product is not lost on the shelves.