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Healthier potatoes on the horizon?

Whether they're "dirtless" or higher in antioxidants, "Today" food editor Phil Lempert says potatoes are likely to be the next value-added commodity.

It all started when the egg producers took a look at their declining sales and decided that it was time to “reengineer” their product. Eggs that are organic, cage-free, hormone-free — and even ones where vitamins like Omega-3s and dietary supplements have been added — started to line the supermarket egg cases. Then we started to see the next evolution, clear plastic containers (so we didn’t have to waste those precious seconds to open up the package to inspect for broken eggs) and even company logos stamped on individual eggs!

What do eggs have to do with potatoes? Well, following the success of the “new” egg, potatoes are likely to be the next commodity positioned to create a premium, value-added tier. Think “virtually dirtless” potatoes, which started being shipped to supermarkets in September. Pro-Health brand is attempting to market a new, healthier potato through a triple-scrubbing process from their 11,000-acre property in Nebraska, where their potato crop is grown and harvested. Their farm is located in an area that’s new to potatoes and yields a product with a higher amount of micronutrients.

Signs point to the public being ready for premium potatoes. According to ACNielsen data, dollar volume in the fresh potato category grew 2.9 percent in the 52-week period ending October 8, 2005, in U.S. supermarkets. Over the same period, unit volume (five-pound bags) decreased by 1.3 percent. This may indicate a willingness by American consumers to pay more for potatoes perceived as “healthier” — such as organic potatoes, potatoes grown with less insecticide, and blue potatoes (which offer a higher content of antioxidants).

Bottom line is that we can expect to see a shift away from commodity type packaging (and pricing) for most of our staples as technologies and health benefits change these products to meet our real (or perceived) needs. I expect that soon, the five-pound bag of potatoes will be gone and replaced with better looking, better tasting, healthier potatoes — which of course means having this staple turn into our next ad medium. Individual logos and motivational sayings etched on each tuber will surely follow.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .