White starch's image took a beating during the Atkins Diet craze several years ago. Pasta, for one, enjoyed 88% household penetration pre-Atkins but quickly saw that number drop to 84%, where it stubbornly remains.
A turnaround could be in the works, though. Last month, the National Pasta Association launched “Pasta Fits,” an awareness campaign that features recipes, dieting advice and a lineup of advertisements showcasing nutritious meals that incorporate pasta. Peter Smith, CEO of New World Pasta and president of the NPA, said the program reflects a shift in consumer attitudes away from weight loss and toward weight control.
“It's a way of saying pasta can fit into your lifestyle in a myriad of ways,” he said.
To shift the focus away from carbs — pasta's most vilified nutrient — manufacturers have developed healthy innovations like whole grain and fiber-enriched pastas. Ronzoni offers a line called Garden Delight that contains a full serving of vegetables. Gluten-free pasta is a bright spot as well, with sales up 40% over the past year, according to the Nielsen Co.
The potato industry has also started to hit back. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed limiting federal funding for potatoes in school lunches earlier this year, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a potato-producing state, stood up at a budget hearing with a head of iceberg lettuce in one hand and a potato in the other and pointed out that the potato contained nearly twice the amount of vitamin C as the head of lettuce. “What does the department have against potatoes?” she plaintively asked.
Not to be outdone, last year Chris Voigt of the Washington State Potato Commission undertook a potatoes-only diet for 60 days — and in the process lost 21 pounds and lowered his cholesterol by 67 points.
At this point, publicity stunts may not be necessary. Both starches appear in sample meals featured in the new USDA MyPlate promotional materials.