DENVER — Crowd-sourced nutrition fads, low-carb diets, the “snackification” of America and global competition are some of the challenges facing the U.S. potato industry.
However, consumers’ strong preference for potatoes over other vegetables, the rise of plant-centered diets and the potato’s positive nutrition and sustainability stories are trends that favor increased demand, according to Laurel Muir.
Muir, managing director and partner with Boulder, Colo.-based Sterling Rice Group, talked about consumer trends affecting the potato market at the 2019 Potatoes USA annual meeting on March 14.
The Sterling Rice Group was instrumental in developing Potato USA’s “What are you eating?” campaign, according to John Toaspern, chief marketing officer of Potatoes USA, who introduced Muir.
Still counting carbs?
Muir said that perception that “carbs are bad” is still held by some consumers.
Instead of joining Weight Watchers to lose ten pounds as many might have done in the 1980s, consumers today identify with “food tribes.”
“There are so many new complex ways that people are identifying with food and this is resulting in brand new diets and lifestyle tribes that are coming to the forefront,” she said.
Low-carb diets are not coming from the scientific community or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but what she calls “crowd-sourced education.”
The Paleo Diet, the Keto diet and the Whole 30 diet have elements of restricting carbs. Still, she said the influence of the diets on the larger population is limited.
“With all of these diets, only about 19% of consumers are currently following a carb-restricted diet,” Muir said.
Also, potatoes appear to be faring better than rice and pasta in those diets.
“It looks really different for potatoes than it did back with Atkins diet in 2005; people are not cutting out potatoes in the same way,” she said. “We need to ensure that our potato message and our nutrition message continues to get out there.”
She said the industry must tell the potato’s nutrition story.
“What we need to do as an industry is ensure that potatoes are not lumped in with refined grains and sugars,” she said.
The powerful nutrition story of potatoes makes it a “good carb” story, Muir said.
Another challenge for potatoes is competition for other vegetables for share of stomach. Cauliflower and sweet potatoes are among the vegetables competing for menu space and retail sales.
“We must continue to innovate with potatoes and find new opportunities for consumption,” she said.
The quest for convenience is changing the way Americans eat, with time now the biggest consumer equity. A recent study says about 15% of all eating occasions are now snacks, she said.
That is both good and bad for potatoes, she said, noting chips benefit from the trend but perhaps not fresh potatoes.
What’s more, a 20% decline in meat-based dinners over the past 20 years also hurts the potato side dish, she said. Muir said potato innovation in foodservice dishes may be a key to growing future potato demand.
Muir said several trends that favor increased potato consumption include the fact that the vegetable is already America’s favorite vegetable by a wide margin.
The rise of the flexitarian diet also signals growth in fresh produce and potato demand, she said. The “potatoes power performance” theme also resonates with consumers, she said. The desire for “sustainable nutrition” may also favor the growth in demand for plant-based products including potatoes.
Muir said consumers are demanding more products with sustainability claims, noting a recent retail study found almost twice the demand for products touting environmental or Fair Trade claims.
Muir said the future is bright for potatoes.
“We absolutely have headwinds, they’re coming at us,” she said. “But we have incredible tailwinds that are behind us that are pushing potatoes forward, not only for today, but also tomorrow.”