White Sweet Potatoes.

first_imgThroughout the South, the humblesweet potato is a staple of regional cookery: Baked into soufflés,pies and casseroles, it flavors many a meal.Yet that very distinctive flavor– its cloyingly sweet taste — also has been a major obstacleto its expansion as a crop around the world.Deserted Island Food”It’s just hard to eat insignificant amounts, day after day,” said UGA horticultureprofessor Stanley Kays.But thanks to research by Kaysand fellow horticulture professor Wayne McLaurin, the sweet potatocould overcome its own sweet taste to become a major world foodsource.”If you were stranded ona deserted island and could have just one food to grow, this wouldbe the one to pick,” Kays said. “There are just so manypluses to it. It has an exceptionally high yield, it can be grownin a wide range of places, and it has tremendous stress tolerance.”It’s high in provitamin A andprotein, too, much higher than the traditional white potato. There’sjust one small problem: Hardly anyone in the world prefers theflavor of a sweet potato enough to plant and eat it in large quantities.Tasting The ‘Veggies’ of Their LaborSo Kays and McLaurin set out tobreed a non-sweet version of the crop. They began crossing sweetpotato varieties in 1990 in an attempt to waylay the enzyme thatcreates such a sweet taste. Eventually they hit on a promisingversion that also appeared to be quite resistant to disease. Alongthe way, the two researchers did the bulk of the dirty work intheir study: the tasting.”Most of the lines were justdreadful,” Kays said.But the eventual winner was virtuallyindistinguishable — in flavor, texture and even appearance –from a plain white potato. Kays said they were lucky to hit awinner relatively early in the experiments.”We picked the right parents,”he said. “There’s always an element of luck in any breedingprogram. You want to pick parents who possess those critical genesyou need.”During the years since, Kays hasbeen testing and talking up the potato among foreign governmentsand aid officials, including one recent high-profile UGA visitto North Korea. Kays soon will be sending propagation materialfor the North Koreans to try out — good news for a nation inthe throes of devastating famine, one where the white potato crophas failed as often as it has succeeded in recent years.It Grows Just About Everywhere”The sweet potato is reallydurable,” Kays said. “It can go through three or fourweeks of bad environmental situations — heavy rain, little rain– and still make a crop. This has real food security potential.”Thanks to McDonalds, the Chinesepeople have discovered they like french fries. While sweet potatoescan be produced in China for 40 percent less than white potatoes,only a small percentage is being used for human consumption becauseof its flavor. Kays’ new sweet potato will change this.It also could mean good news forGeorgia farmers, who already grow a limited amount of the crop,but are set to expand production if markets swell.Kays and McLaurin now plan tocreate sweet potatoes with other flavors and traits — based uponconsumer preferences or need. They are interested in creatingan exceptionally high provitamin A sweet potato that could beused to combat vitamin A deficiency, which results in blindnessfor up to 500,000 children around the world each year. Anotherpossibility is a blander sweet potato that can be added easilyto processed foods to increase their nutritional content and bulk.”The white potato is usedin approximately 10,000 kinds of processed foods right now,”Kays said. “I could see some of these products incorporatinga blend of a new kind of sweet potato instead.”last_img

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