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A Canadian research network is exploring how the potato could benefit human health and the environment.

Purple and red potatoes

These purple and red potatoes could contain secrets to better health.

The humble potato may be the most unassuming of foods ? a reliable staple that's easy to take for granted. But a group of Canadian researchers believe that underneath its mild exterior, the potato holds vast potential to benefit humanity ' and they've created a network to prove it.

The BioPotato Network, which includes more than 30 scientists from government, academia and industry organizations, is exploring the hidden benefits of the potato for human health and the environment. In the future, Canadians may eat foods fortified with potato-based antioxidants, or buy environmentally friendly plastics and pesticides made from potatoes.

The case for potatoes

In Charlottetown, Dr. Bob Chapman of the NRC Institute for Nutrisciences and Health (NRC-INH) leads a team that will scrutinize about 20 potato varieties for everything from cardiovascular benefits to effects on the immune system. Their research will focus on selected varieties of red, purple, yellow and orange potatoes, which have high levels of bioactive compounds.

?We're trying to build up the supporting evidence that potatoes are good for you, so that information can be used to help market them.?

Dr. Bob Chapman, NRC

One goal is to show consumers that, like other foods, potatoes come with their own particular health benefits. ?Ketchup contains lycopene, and people associate lycopene with benefits for the prostate,? says Dr. Chapman. ?We're trying to build up the supporting evidence that potatoes are good for you, so that information can be used to help market them.?

A healthy growth spurt

Canada's smallest province, Prince Edward Island, is gaining attention for its world-class nutrisciences and biosciences R&D. The number of bioscience companies in PEI has grown by more than 50% since 2004, and these companies are investing millions of dollars to pursue opportunities in the burgeoning global market for nutrition-related products, such as natural health products, functional foods and nutraceuticals.

Blue potatoes are already known to be rich in carotenoids and other powerful antioxidants. Researchers will look closer at the potato's antioxidant properties and also investigate possible benefits for conditions such as stroke, allergies, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. They will also develop new potato varieties that are high in fibre. ?The idea is to develop a potato that has a low glycemic index, which is of great value for diabetics,? says Dr. Yvan Pelletier of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which is leading the network.

One outcome could be new potato varieties on the market with proven health benefits. Another approach will be to extract the beneficial elements from potatoes and add them to other foods, or package them as health supplements. Chefs at Holland College's Smart Kitchen in Charlottetown will work with researchers to find out how compounds from potatoes could be added to foods such as juice or bread, and whether taste or consistency is affected (see The proof is in the pot).

A multitalented tuber

Beyond the health benefits, the network will also explore the potato's use in bioplastics and environmentally safe pesticides. The starch from potatoes can be used to create biodegradable plastics for products such as trash bags, utensils and foam, while a natural insecticide found in the foliage of cultivated potatoes could lead to biopesticides that are safer for human health and the environment.

?It's not scientific curiosity ' it's an economic product.?

Dr. Yvan Pelletier, AAFC

?We're sure that there is a lot of potential there,? says Dr. Pelletier. He hopes that, ultimately, a Canadian company will license and sell products developed by the network, such as potato-based additives for the food industry. ?That's what the network is all about,? he says. ?It's not scientific curiosity ' it's an economic product.?

As products are developed, research will be guided by what the market needs. ?For example, should the product be in liquid or solid form?? he says. ?What quantity of potatoes would we need? Are there any legislative issues?? At the end of the process, Dr. Pelletier says the network hopes to offer industry a product that is market-ready and in demand. ?We'll have the basic economics worked out so that we can say: ?Here is the key, you can drive the car any time you want.? End

The proof is in the pot

Once researchers discover the potato's health secrets, they need to bring those benefits to consumers. ?For example, if we find a purple potato that has better antioxidant properties than broccoli, how do we get it to the table?? says Dr. Chapman. ?How do we make it palatable so that people will actually buy it??

Chefs in the Smart Kitchen at Holland College will test the new potato varieties to find out which ones make for an ideal table potato, and how best to cook them. ?Is it a dry cook or a boil cook?? says Dr. Chapman. ?And if you boil it, does it change the colour of the potato?? They will also experiment with creating new products from the potatoes, such as freeze dried mashed potatoes, and find out how to give those products the shelf life that customers expect without sacrificing nutrition.

The healthy components of the potatoes will also be extracted for use as additives to create new ?functional foods? ' foods that go beyond basic nutrition to offer a proven health benefit, such as reducing inflammation or the risk of cancer. Chefs will experiment with adding these extracts to other foods in a way that doesn't negatively affect the flavour or texture.

This research will make it easier for potential clients in the food and pharmaceutical industries to see how the potato extracts perform. ?They're going to have questions about things like heat stability and taste ' if you add it to this food, what's going to happen?? says Dr. Pelletier. ?How can we prepare it so that the taste isn't affected?? Having ready answers to these questions will make it easier to bring the network's research to market.