WASHINGTON (AP) – Whether they are called freedom fries or french fries, the fast-food staple is taking a hit from consumers worried about their waistlines.

The government’s latest statistics show production of french fries rose 2 percent last year. But a trade group for potato growers says sales are leveling off as consumer advocates and some nutritionists blame fries for Americans’ struggle with fat.

Sales in the first quarter of this year were down by more than 5 percent from a peak of $520 million in the first quarter of 2001, according to the United States Potato Board.

Total sales and total pounds of fries consumed are comparable to figures from the late 1990s, the board said. In 2001, the average consumer ate 29.4 pounds of frozen potato products, down 2.4 percent from the record set in 1996.

Agriculture Department economists warned last year that french fry consumption levels would flatten because worldwide growth in the fast-food industry was slowing.

Malcolm M. Knapp, a restaurant industry consultant, said negative publicity surrounding fats and oils has not helped fry sales.

“There’s been enormous publicity about trans fatty acid, what you cook your fries in,” Knapp said. Consumers “think it’s oily, therefore, there’s fat in it,” he said.

The Food and Drug Administration recently told food companies to begin labeling how much trans fatty acid is in their products. Trans fat appears in many baked and fried goods, particularly those made with animal fat and hydrogenated oils. Scientists have found that trans fat increases the risk of heart disease.

Some french fries are made in vegetable oil, but consumers often do not know the difference, Knapp said. Consequently, some probably are asking restaurants to hold the fries or are cutting back on the larger sizes, he said.

Joe Guenthner, an agricultural economist at the University of Idaho, said that trends in the restaurant business may have bumped french fries from the top of the list of most popular foods.

“One of the rapidly growing segments is Asian food, and fast-casual dining places. People are eating noodles there instead of potatoes,” Guenthner said. “That is a trend that might have an impact in the long run.”

The struggling economy might also play a role as people eat out less frequently, he said.

While the Potato Board’s mission is to increase consumption of frozen potatoes, some nutritionists say less is better.

Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said potatoes have a high glycemic load, which can quickly increase blood sugar levels. Sugar and refined grains also do the same.

“We have to separate our starchy vegetables from the grains, and put it in a separate category as something that shouldn’t be consumed on a daily basis,” she said. “What we’re trying to promote is to eat more whole grains.”

She said that does not mean consumers should shy away from potatoes; they should just eat fewer of them.

Several nutritionists argue that carbohydrates should be separated into separate categories – the good and the bad – through a glycemic index which rates how quickly carbohydrates are digested and enter the bloodstreams as sugar.

Dick Rush, vice president of natural resources for the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, said potatoes are getting a bad rap.

“It’s not necessarily the potato, it’s how it’s prepared,” he said, noting that potatoes are a vegetable high in potassium and Vitamin C, he noted. “It’s nutritious. People that don’t want to eat their potatoes fried, there’s plenty of other ways to eat them.”

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