With Potatoes, More Color May Mean Better Nutrition
By Linda McElreath
Many consumers think that potatoes are an almost perfect food. They put them at the pinnacle of their Top 10 list of favorite vegetables, especially when the potatoes are french-fried to crisp perfection. Along with providing complex carbohydrates, potatoes are a source of important nutrients like niacin, thiamin, and vitamin C.
So why would plant breeders want to improve on this already-popular dietary staple? Because brightly-colored red, orange and purple potatoes might one day provide health-promoting properties way beyond those present in today's mostly white- and cream-colored tubers. And bright-gold-fleshed and red-skinned potatoes already seem to have won a lot of consumer attention.
Charles R. Brown, a plant geneticist with the Agricultural Research Service, thinks more colorful potatoes might give consumers better nutrition, as well as more variety in flavor. He is in ARS' Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit at Prosser, Wash. Brown has made dozens of breeding crosses, searching each new progeny for signs of additional health benefits.
So far, the primary benefit likely to be derived from the more boldly colored potatoes seems to be heightened antioxidant activity. Brown thinks that the pigments that produce the colors may also function as antioxidants in the human diet.
And the bright colors occur naturally. Brown identifies and selects his test plants from mainstream potato breeding programs. But even so, he needs to do more research to learn about traits such as composition and quantity of pigment, growing requirements, and yields before "colored spuds" such as these can be commercialized.
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Colorful Potatoes Offer Nutrition, Variety
Orange mashed potatoes? Purple french fries? Potato dishes of the future could be healthier, tastier, and more colorful if breeders incorporate diverse Andean potatoes.
"All potatoes originated in South America, but there are many variations that we don't typically see here in the United States," says ARS geneticist Charles R. Brown. "Potatoes with orange, red, or purple flesh may provide health benefits and new flavors," he says. Brown works at the ARS Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit in Prosser, Washington.
All potatoes are a good source of complex carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin C, folic acid, and iron. Brown has made dozens of breeding crosses to examine additional health benefits in colored varieties.
"The pigments that produce the colors may also function as antioxidants in the human diet," Brown says. Antioxidants are believed to aid in preventing certain cancers and types of blindness, as well as improving cardiovascular health.
Brown has developed orange-fleshed potatoes with up to four times the antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein as white potatoes. In a blindfolded taste test of boiled, diced potatoes, consumers preferred the flavor of the orange potatoes to that of the white ones.
Consumers may already know of some red or purple-fleshed potatoes, occasionally sold through organic cooperatives. But Brown has developed potatoes with these darker colors that have more than four times the antioxidant potential than current commercial varieties.
The potatoes also score well against other foods in a standard measure for antioxidant capacity, a laboratory test called ORAC, or oxygen radical absorbance capacity. (See "Can Foods Forestall Aging?" Agricultural Research, February 1999, pp. 14–17.) Brown's red- and purple-fleshed potatoes achieved ORAC scores comparable to brussels-sprouts, kale, or spinach.
Brown says that before the colored potatoes become available commercially, important agronomic traits need to be verified or incorporated, such as appealing skin appearance, reasonable yield and disease resistance, and low concentrations of bitterness compounds. Some of his experimental breeding lines may be ready for commercial testing once enough seed is available.
"There is tremendous interest from growers," Brown says. "These colored varieties are seen as a radically new type of potato for a previously untapped market," he notes. "Americans love their potatoes. Giving them additional reasons to include potatoes in their diet is a plan that's likely to succeed."—By Kathryn Barry Stelljes, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
Source: Charles R. Brown is at the USDA-ARS Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit, 24106 N. Bunn Rd., Prosser, WA 99350-9687; phone (509) 786-9252, fax (509) 786-9277. "Colorful Potatoes Offer Nutrition, Variety" was published in the October 2001 issue of Agricultural Research magazine. This research is part of Plant, Microbial, and Insect Genetic Resources, Genomics, and Genetic Improvement, an ARS National Program (#301) described at http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov.