Mention potatoes and most North Americans will think of Idaho and Maine. However, Florida growers would like to point out that they harvest some $120 million worth of spuds each year, too, for distribution throughout the Eastern seaboard. Although Florida is better known for its citrus and other produce, the market introduction next year of a gourmet tuber—a shiny skinned, yellow-fleshed baking potato—could give Florida a prominent spot on the potato map.
"It has outstanding appearance and great taste," observes horticulturalist Chad Hutchinson of the University of Florida, who for the past five seasons has been testing the potato's suitability for cultivation in his region's subtropical environment. But what has really piqued growers' interest in this new variety, he acknowledges, is a tantalizing research result reported earlier this year by Canadian researchers looking into the new variety: when the potato is grown in Florida, it has about 25 percent fewer calories and 30 percent fewer carbohydrates per unit weight than the typical brown-skinned Idaho baking potato—the Russet Burbank.
Florida farmers have begun referring to the new spud as a "low-carb" cultivar. It's poised to hit groceries next January, just in time to take advantage of the low-carbohydrate-diet craze.
The potato comes from HZPC, a Dutch seed-potato company. Its North American operations, headquartered in Prince Edward Island, Canada, distributed batches of test seed to Florida growers from some "luxury" seed lines it was getting ready to introduce. Among them were seed for a glossy skinned baking potato. The goal was to see how it performed in Florida's steamy climate.
When the smooth-skinned spud reached maturity, the growers got together to assess its prospects, recalls Don Northcott of HZPC. They saw a potato sitting on the soil one evening and remarked on how particularly lovely it looked. Then they collected a few, microwaved them, and bit into the flesh. And that's all it took to sell them on it, Northcott says. The growers loved the potato's look and the taste—even before any data on its low-carb status emerged. As an added bonus, it matured early—in just 75 days, nearly a month earlier than standard Florida potatoes. And its yellow flesh suggests it may carry a bounty of carotenoids, plant pigments that serve as health-promoting antioxidants.
Most northern spuds are considered so-called storage potatoes, Hutchinson explains. That means they may be 6 to 8 months old before they reach the consumer. By contrast, he says, "When we dig a potato in Florida, we want it to be in a supermarket—and on the consumer's plate—within a few days." This extra freshness translates into a different, better taste, he claims.
Among these fresh potatoes, Florida's gold standard has long been a variety first introduced in 1938, known as Sebago. As researchers test new cultivars, all are compared against it. Even so, they're not readily available in stores, so local consumers come by our lab to see if they can scrounge Sebagos for their own dining, Hutchinson notes. And the real measure of the new Dutch-bred line, he says, is that in taste tests, people rank it as good as or better than Sebago.
A group of Florida growers have formed a cooperative and purchased the sole North American license to grow and market this new HZPC potato. They aim to have the first commercial crop planted in September. By January, the potatoes could be moving up the Eastern seaboard, eventually reaching Canada, Northcott predicts.
In trying to evaluate the nutritional properties of the new potato, Northcott's team at HZPC sent some of the new Florida grown specimens to Canadian chemists for analysis earlier this year. The researchers compared vitamins, fiber and protein content, minerals, and other characteristics in the new potatoes against those in several commercially traded North American potato varieties, such as Yukon Gold and Russet Burbank. The real surprise, Northcott says, came from the carbohydrate measurements.
Most of the carbohydrates in spuds are in the form of starch. Potatoes are routinely rated on their specific gravity, which boils down in their case to a ratio of starch to water. In the new Dutch variety, the ratio is skewed more toward the water than usual. Because starch accounts for much of a potato's calories, the cultivar's reduced starch content makes it a low-calorie potato as well.
However, that doesn't impress Colette Heimowitz, a nutritionist and vice president of Atkins Nutritionals, a company commercializing low-carbohydrate diets and foods. "Starchy vegetables are not allowed on [the Atkins diet] until people are close to their goal weight. And potato is one of the last things we tell people to add back." The reason for this, she explains, is that potato has a high glycemic index, which means that it quickly breaks down in the body into glucose, potentially causing blood-sugar concentrations to spike.
Nutritional studies have demonstrated that diets rich in high-glycemic-index foods can pose a risk of heart disease, exacerbate diabetes, and may even foster overeating (SN: 4/8/00, p. 236: The New GI Tracts). "People need to be aware that a white potato has a high glycemic index—one equivalent to a candy bar," Heimowitz told Science News Online.
According to Jennie Brand-Miller of the University of Sydney in Australia, who has measured the glycemic index of many foods, the value for a baked potato is 85 out of a possible 100. For comparison, she found, the value for chocolate cake (made from a mix) with chocolate frosting is only 38 and peppermint flavored LifeSavers candy is 70. So unless the glycemic index of the new Dutch potato is lower than that of ordinary baking potatoes, its lower concentration of carbohydrates shouldn't render it any more attractive to Atkins dieters than conventional potatoes, Heimowitz says. Indeed, she asks, "why not buy a regular potato and just eat one-third less of it."
Hutchinson's answer to that question is that the new spud is no regular potato. It has superior qualities that the growers' cooperative is betting consumers will pay a premium for, he says.
Indeed, Northcott suspects, "People may pick up their first bag of these potatoes because they are low-carbohydrate [potatoes], but they'll pick up the second because they taste so good. It's the quality and taste," he says, that will bring customers back.
Back for exactly what, you might ask? For now, this is a potato with no name. The cooperative is racing to come up with something catchy. A graduate student in Hutchinson's lab thinks she has a winner: Spud Lite.
Atkins Health and Medical Information Services
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Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida
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HZPC Americas Corp.
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