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Hot potato

New varieties and strategic marketing are helping the humble potato reassert itself

SHUTTERSTOCK/ULRSHUTTERSTOCK/ULR

Hit hard by the low-carbohydrate diet craze, the potato industry is striking back with a number of new varieties, products with health claims, and spuds that are more convenient than ever for time-strapped consumers.

Developing new potato varieties and touting potatoes’ health benefits are “how we move the category forward,” says Kendra Mills, marketing director of the PEI Potato Board. “It’s really unfortunate that something like a vegetable can take the brunt” of the impact from a low-carb diet trend, she says, adding, however, “We’re finally coming back around.”

While potatoes “get lumped into the starch category, eating a potato is very different nutritionally than eating a piece of white bread,” Mills says, noting that a fist-sized potato contains only about 120 calories, has more potassium than a banana and contains no gluten, sodium or cholesterol.

Mills adds that while potatoes in Canada are largely marketed by type—such as russet or white—the popular European practice of marketing potatoes by variety is starting to catch on.

Since 2007, for example, Mid Isle Farms has had North American rights from U.K. supplier Greenvale for the Vales Sovereign variety, which it sells under the Rustic Comfort brand. The all-purpose variety that features creamy flesh and “pink kisses” on the eyes was named a fresh produce variety of the year by U.K. grocer Tesco. “We’re very, very pleased with this variety,” says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing and sales at Mid Isle Farms in Albany, P.E.I.

Harris also touts Mid Isle’s yellow- fleshed Yukon Russet, “an ideal all-purpose potato” sold at Sobeys and Metro that she says is delicious any way it’s prepared. “The more all-purpose, the better,” she says.

At the other end of the spectrum is EarthFresh’s Best For program—consisting of potatoes (typically red, yellow, russet and white) that are considered best for baking, roasting, mashing or boiling. Potatoes “all have different cooking attributes,” says Stephanie Cutaia, marketing director at EarthFresh Foods in Burlington, Ont. “What we’ve done is make it easy for the consumer who’s going in saying, ‘What kind of potato do I need?’”

EarthFresh was first to market with its Carisma lower glycemic index potatoes (lower in carbohydrates), which it launched in 2016. “We were the first food item in Canada marketed as having a lower glycemic response, which was exciting,” Cutaia says. EarthFresh’s lower glycemic index claim was proven on blood tests conducted on patients with diabetes. The yellow potato was listed at Sobeys, Metro, Longo’s, Whole Foods Market and Walmart. While EarthFresh was unable to get enough availability to sell the potato in 2018, it is hoping to bring it back next year.

EarthFresh recently also launched the NutriSpud Vitality brand of high anti-oxidant potatoes, a mix of purple, red and yellow potatoes. Its packaging pledges to “energize your life.”

“People are looking constantly for something new,” says Cutaia, citing Mintel data that finds 45% of Canadians are interested in trying foods with health-boosting claims. “We truly try to hone in on what people are looking for.”

Harris predicts cleaner potatoes that don’t need to be peeled (“just run them under the water and they’re good to go”) will become more prevalent. “They’re cleaner and faster for the consumer to use,” she says, noting Mid Isle recently installed a polisher to clean its potatoes.

Frank Yunace, operations manager at Pete’s Frootique & Fine Foods in Halifax, says small potatoes like creamers are popular with shoppers because they’re convenient and cook quickly. Baby new potatoes “are great because they’re easy to roast,” but russets are the No. 1 sellers. Smaller-sized bags—such as two or three pounds—are also a hit.

Fresh potatoes make up “the fastest- growing side dish right now,” Cutaia says. “Our mandate is to shout out the goodness of potatoes,” she adds, so that the next big diet fad doesn’t hurt the market again.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s December/January issue.

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