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New Potato Type Bred for Higher Carotenoid Levels

Peter Wilcox potato (University of Florida/Agricultural Research Service)

Peter Wilcox potato (University of Florida/Agricultural Research Service)

Researchers with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a new breed of potato with higher levels of carotenoids, plant pigments considered beneficial to human health. The work of plant geneticist Kathy Haynes at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland is described in the October 2012 issue of Agricultural Research Magazine, published by USDA, and appeared last year in the Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science (paid subscription required).

Haynes and colleagues conducted the research that led to the Peter Wilcox potato (pictured right), a variety with higher carotenoid levels than the popular Yukon Gold yellow-fleshed potato. In earlier research, Haynes found wild potatoes with intense yellow flesh have as much as 13 times more carotenoids than white-flesh potatoes.

By crossing these wild potatoes with cultivated types, Haynes and colleagues developed the high-carotenoid potatoes, with the Peter Wilcox variety first introduced in 2007. The Peter Wilcox potato has yellow flesh like the Yukon Gold, but purple skin, and has become popular in niche roadside markets. The overall carotenoid levels in this variety are more than 15 percent higher than those in Yukon Gold, according to Haynes.

Carotenoids are a class of plant pigments associated with health benefits, such as improved immune systems and antioxidants that help prevent heart disease and some cancers. Haynes found the Peter Wilcox potato variety having higher concentrations of several carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin. These two carotenoids have been linked to lower risks of chronic eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in dark-green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, which are not, however, as central to American diets or consumed in the same quantities as potatoes. “My thinking is that if we can elevate their levels in potatoes,” says Haynes, “which people do eat a lot of, then we could make a significant impact on the human diet.”

In more recent work, Haynes and colleagues continued their breeding research, crossing smaller and lumpier wild potatoes, but having much higher concentrations of carotenoids, with the larger and more appealing grocery store varieties. They ended up with potatoes having two to three times the levels of carotenoids as Yukon Gold potatoes, which fell short of the more elevated wild-potato concentrations. “Still,” says Haynes, “the carotenoid levels are higher than in current varieties on the market.”

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