John O’Connell/Capital Press
Research geneticist Roy Navarre sees unmet opportunity in baby potatoes for the spud industry to reach consumers who place a premium on aesthetically pleasing, highly nutritious gourmet ingredients.
Navarre, with the USDA’s Prosser, Wash., Agricultural Research Service, has analyzed baby potatoes and found some lines have comparable levels of healthy phytonutrients as spinach and broccoli.
Any plant-derived nutrient useful in the human diet is considered a phytonutrient. Baby potatoes, selected for high tuber sets and low bulking, are typically harvested at golf-ball size, just 60-80 days after planting, necessitating fewer inputs and reducing exposure to disease.
Though baby potato demand has been steadily increasing among consumers who like their taste, vivid colors and convenience of preparation, Navarre believes few shoppers understand they’re also among the most nutritious vegetables in the produce aisle. By highlighting health attributes of baby potatoes, Navarre believes the industry can raise awareness about the nutrition of potatoes in general, which are also high in many phytonutrients, including vitamin C and potassium.
“The industry needs to get the message out there of what exactly is in a potato and do a heads-up comparison with other vegetables,” Navarre said.
Navarre and his team initially set out to better understand what controls the amount of phytonutrients in potatoes — a question he said has been poorly understood but holds great importance for breeders. Large potato varieties he evaluated generally had higher phytonutrient levels when harvested early.
In evaluations of 200 to 300 specialty lines conducted in cooperation with J.R. Simplot over the past four years, Navarre said dozens of lines have shown potential to be raised as baby potatoes.
He said a key compound in potatoes, chlorogenic acid, is an antioxidant known to lower blood pressure. The chemical is found in greater abundance in spuds with colored flesh, though it’s colorless and could likely be bred at higher levels in white spuds, Navarre said.
Generally, Navarre has found spuds with purple and red flesh are high in antioxidants, which prevent cell damage in the body, and pigments called anthocyanins, linked to the prevention of a host of diseases. He found spuds with yellow flesh are high in carotenoids, food pigments tied to improved eye health and cancer prevention.
His testing also found cooking makes the pytonutrients more accessible by the body.
This season, Navarre and Simplot, which markets a Baby Bakers line of products, will evaluate lines out of the Tri-State Potato Breeding program for potential as baby varieties.
Wada Farms, in Eastern Idaho, started raising baby potatoes five years ago and has stepped acreage every year. Wada markets its baby spuds as “smalls.”
“I think it’s the next thing to really push,” said Chris Wada, the company’s marketing director. “But I don’t want to position mini potatoes as healthy and other potatoes as not.”
Wada has installed a separate production line, new cold rooms and a bin with improved airflow specifically for baby potatoes.
Steve Ottum, with Potandon Produce in Idaho Falls, said his company is in the process of evaluating nutrition data on its baby potato lines.