Originally printed in the May 2023 issue of Produce Business.
If you tilted your head quizzically when you read the title of this article, you are not alone. Leaders from HZPC Americas Corp. and Potato Glory have been cringing over this question the past four years, as they have evaluated data from various consumer research studies looking at the attitudes, knowledge and behaviors of Gen Z consumers — many of whom do not know or do not believe potatoes are a vegetable.
HZPC Americas commissioned a nationwide consumer study in January 2020 to evaluate consumers’ preferences for potatoes, doing research in four U.S. cities — Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles — with more than 1,200 consumers ages 18 to 75 who evaluated 12 varieties of potatoes in a controlled environment sensory study.
The sensory study showed there are distinct differences in potato preferences based on age, but no differences for regions of the country, gender, income levels, household size or race/ethnicity. In general, consumers of all ages prefer potatoes with moist, creamy, buttery texture and thinner skin. Older consumers are more accepting of all types of potatoes, while younger consumers are more critical of potatoes, more likely to fault with potatoes’ appearance, skin texture, flesh color and mouthfeel than older consumers.
This same 2020 consumer sensory study also included an exit survey. One of the most shocking findings was the fact that one out of four consumers do not think potatoes count as a vegetable.
The HZPC Americas Corp. and Potato Glory team wanted to learn more about Gen Z consumers, which led to a multi-year partnership with the renowned UMass Dining team called the UMass-Potato Glory Discovery Tour. Activities on the University of Massachusetts campus include Potato Day events in all dining halls and at campus food trucks, and special potato menus features at sporting events. Potato Glory Student Ambassadors focused on peer-to-peer education and engagement, and there were student tracking surveys to assess changes in students’ perceptions of potatoes overtime.
Many positive changes have been tracked since the partnership started the fall of 2020, including doubling the percentage of students who eat potatoes daily compared to before they enrolled in UMass.
The persistence of the belief that potatoes are not vegetables is troubling.
The top two reasons students eat potatoes is because they taste good and because they pair well with other favorite foods. While the UMass Dining team prepares potatoes in many ways, including using them in dishes inspired by world cuisines, students’ favorite preparation method is similar to that of most Americans — french fries — followed by fresh-cut fries, tots, hashbrowns and mashed potatoes.
The persistence of the belief that potatoes are not vegetables has been troubling. Data from the Fall 2022 pre-semester survey (n=2261) show 77% of students agree with the statement, “Potatoes are a vegetable,” while 17% disagree and 5% do not know.
When asked about their agreement with the statement, “Potatoes are nutritious,” 80% agree with that, 13% disagree and 7% do not know.
Clearly, there is room for education on basic facts, but other data sets indicate a more persistent belief and bias that potatoes are not vegetables.
This is an issue for the produce industry. With Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data showing just one in 10 Americans eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day, we need every option and opportunity to boost intake of fruits and vegetables.
The UMass-Potato Glory student tracking survey shows the third most cited reasons students eat potatoes is simply because they love them. Love is a powerful emotion, one that everyone in the potato industry should embrace and reinforce.
When asked in a 2021-2022 school year tracking survey what students would most like to learn about potatoes, nutrition and health benefits topped the list.
The most recent consumer survey commissioned by HZPC Americas Corp. and Potato Glory was an online survey fielded by Menu Matters in December 2022 with more 950 consumers across the U.S. The intent of this survey was to determine what consumers are seeking from potatoes in foodservice operations, especially younger consumers.
According to Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, “Gen Z is more likely to have negative perceptions of potatoes, believing they have no health benefits and are not a vegetable but some ‘other’ category that is more processed than natural.”
This research showed the biggest area of opportunity for potatoes on American menus is as side dishes versus ingredients in entrées. Webster points out, “Consumers are looking to restaurants to do more innovation around potato sides of all types, such as pizza, flatbread and sandwich toppings.”
Webster’s final recommendation is, “To keep potatoes relevant, innovation needs to move potatoes into modern menu categories with powerful flavor and preparation descriptors and away from less interesting traditional formats and flavors.”
So, are potatoes a vegetable? Yes. And are potatoes a vegetable with a powerful future in the foodservice industry? YES!
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is the culinary and foodservice strategist for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the retail nutrition marketing and foodservice specialist for the Buy California Marketing Agreement/CA GROWN, a member of the Texas A&M Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture AgriLife External Advisory Board, a member of the Bayer Vegetable Seeds Horticultural Advisory Council, and co-author of Cooking á la Heart, a 500-recipe cookbook based on plant-forward eating cultures from around the world.. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on social media @AmyMyrdalMiller.