It’s not often I get sentimental about food. Yes, there’s a pizza place back in my hometown that brings tears to my eyes when the server delivers the tray to my table. That is the exception and not the rule.

But I stumbled upon a study last week about potato consumption among children and was disheartened to learn that the spud has been consistently dissed by the American public over the last decade. With all the fad low-carb diets making the rounds, potatoes have been viewed with smug disdain.

An earlier 2004 survey by the U.S. Potato Board showed that 35 percent of Americans felt potatoes were fattening and lacked the nutritional value of other vegetables. The percentage fell to 18 percent this year, but that’s still one out of five who believe that incorporating potatoes into your diet is a half-baked idea.

In the new study, presented last week at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Conference in Washington, D.C., University of Washington – Seattle researcher Adam Drewnowski looked at meals consumed by 11,500 kids. Some contained white potatoes (not fried) and some did not.

He discovered that the lunches with potatoes also had more other vegetables than those that didn’t.

“Potatoes belong in the diet,” Drewnowski said. “Children who consume white potatoes have more nutrient-dense diets, overall, and they actually eat more of other vegetables. There were no differences in the prevalence of overweight or obesity between children who did and did not consume potatoes.”

OK, to be fair, the study was funded by the Potato Board. But so what? In the research world, that’s dog bites man.

(Please cut members of the Potato Board a break. It’s a tough job. They can’t be thin-skinned.)

I also found the study interesting because I’m a fan of the potato in almost all its forms. I rarely eat fried potatoes, but I often boil them or mash them. I prefer the small red ones you can just rinse off and throw into a pot of boiling water. Serve with fish, chicken, burgers, any main course you have handy.

I find butter, sour cream and other types of dressing unnecessary but I do use salt and pepper.

Potatoes are cheap, and they are high in potassium, fiber and vitamin C. So really, what’s not to like?

They are also easy to grow. I recently interviewed a guy who lives in a fairly dense urban area but grows potatoes in his backyard inside a tire system. Take an old tire, fill it with dirt, then plant your seed potatoes (halved or quartered). As the plants come up, add another tire and more soil. Repeat until you have a stack of tires filled with potatoes.

“This is a way to grow a lot of potatoes in a small space,” he said. “When I finally pull the tires off, I’ll have 80 to 100 potatoes out there.”

Potatoes are the only food you’re encouraged to play with as a child. Your mother might have said, “Don’t play with your food,” but she exempted the potato. She knew that there was a Mr. Potato Head box sitting on the shelf in your bedroom, awaiting the arrival of a subject potato.

I can’t help noting that Mr. Potato Head celebrates his 60th birthday next year. The toy was introduced in August 1952 and cost less than a buck.

Cheap fun, good eats.

Photo: Potato happy face via The photographer commented: “While making dinner, I pulled this potato out of the bag and it had this happy face! I couldn’t eat it!”