Tiny tubers pack powerful punch nutritionally

PULLMAN – When it comes to nutritional value, baby potatoes are proving to far outstrip their adult counterparts, according to Roy Navarre, USDA Agricultural Research Service research geneticist and adjunct professor with Washington State University.

In preliminary trials at WSU’s potato research center here, Navarre and his team are harvesting 71 different varieties of potatoes at between seven and 10 weeks of growth. Phytonutrients such as folate, or Vitamin B9, and other antioxidants appear in much higher levels in baby tubers weighing around an ounce, Navarre said.

“One of our goals is to help restore the healthful image of potatoes,” Navarre told those attending the WSU Potato Field Day in late June. “Demand has been falling, and we think one answer is to develop high nutrient potatoes consumers will want.”

One way to do that is to enhance the metabolic pathways that produce the target nutrients using classical breeding and/or molecular approaches. Navarre’s research includes collaborations with those working in potato breeding, agronomy, physiology and biochemistry like WSU professors Rick Knowles and Mark Pavek to flex those new genetic technology muscles.

If the team succeeds, Navarre said, the industry stands to make a true difference in the health of potato consumers. Potatoes are the fourth largest crop in the world. “It’s hard to think of a better crop for improving the overall health of consumers,” he said. “Potatoes are something we eat pounds of every year. It’s a staple crop in this country and abroad.”

He is also optimistic about the economic impact of the research. “This could be a show case project that could lift the whole industry,” Navarre said.

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