Potatoes USA speaker highlights trends in industry at potato conference

For the Basin Business Journal | March 1, 2024 1:00 AM

KENNEWICK — Potatoes can and should be part of initiatives toward healthy eating, according to Bonnie Johnson, director of nutrition and industry relations for Potatoes USA. Johnson talked about the organization’s efforts to promote the place of potatoes in a healthy diet, among other things, at the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference in late January.

Johnson said one of the emerging trends is using a healthy diet as treatment for disease, part of the effort to cut healthcare costs. 

“Food as medicine, or culinary medicine,” she said.

As part of the new movement, doctors are making specific recommendations for foods for their patients. A nutritionist herself, Johnson said most physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners get relatively little training in nutrition during medical school or residency. 

Potatoes USA is working on becoming a source of information for medical professionals, she said.

The organization is working on developing a test kitchen, with the goal of bringing in medical professionals and medical students to learn about potatoes. Potatoes USA has done some experimenting already, developing consumer-friendly recipes that take advantage of the nutrients in potatoes.

A pilot program will bring in 10 medical professionals to use some of the recipes developed and learn more about the nutritional values of potatoes, Johnson said.

The organization surveys consumers each year to learn what they think about potatoes and their place in people’s diet. The research shows potatoes are among the most popular vegetables, with about 80% of respondents eating potatoes at least once a week. But people don’t always know the details of the nutritional value of potatoes, she said. 

Potatoes are a nutrient-dense food, and Potatoes USA is trying to get the message out about that, she said. The organization has been doing some promotions targeted at active people, emphasizing that potatoes are a good source of the nutrients athletes and active people need.

Potatoes USA staff spend time monitoring media to determine what’s being said about potatoes, good and bad. What they’ve found is that there’s not much incorrect or negative information out there. 

“That’s really a good problem to have,” Johnson said. 

The organization responds to what it considers to be incorrect information in traditional media. They also look at social media and are testing an artificial intelligence platform to help with that. 

“This is going to sound far out there,” Johnson said.

If there’s wrong information out there, “Spuddie” can craft a response with factual information that’s been reviewed by humans. Potatoes USA is considered a “quasi-government agency,” and as such, its messaging must be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said. That pre-approved information is used by the AI platform to craft a response. 

Currently, it’s being tested on X, formerly Twitter, with the goal of expanding it to other forms of social media, she said.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at cschweizer@columbiabasinherald.com.