Building a better spud
Researchers nationwide are searching their shelves for potato varieties that produce lower acrylamide levels when processed into french fries.
Rich Novy, a plant geneticist in Aberdeen, Idaho, who works for the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and other researchers are developing potatoes with lower levels of glucose, a reducing sugar, and an amino acid called asparagine. Combined, they form acrylamide when heated at high temperatures.
Acrylamide is a compound discovered in cooked food in 2002 by Swedish researchers and is suspected of being carcinogenic at extremely high levels. Although subsequent studies have found no link between levels of acrylamide ingestion and cancer, potato processors and growers are being proactive and are halfway through a four-year study to identify potato varieties with lower levels of acrylamide following processing.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory agencies haven't determined if acrylamide presents a health risk at the low levels found in food, and recommend that it's unnecessary for consumers to change their diets to avoid foods with acrylamide. Besides fries and chips, many foods develop acrylamide during cooking including coffee, chocolate, almonds, cereal, crackers and bread.
A recent panel organized by the International Food Information Council concluded that research to date has not conclusively shown that levels of acrylamide in food pose a health risk and advocated more research to understand any potential health risks.
Described as being among the largest concentration of potato research for a common goal, the study began in 2010 with funding from the USPB and chip processors for the National Chip Processing Trials. Starting in 2011, 81 potato breeding clones and varieties from Idaho, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Maine were being analyzed for glucose, asparagine and acrylamide at trial sites in Idaho, North Dakota and Washington.
In 2012, two additional sites in Wisconsin and Maine are being added for the National Fry Processing Trials (NFPT), which are supported by the processing industry, the United States Potato Board (USPB) and the National Potato Council (NPC).
"I submitted 22 potato entries from the potato breeding program at Aberdeen," said Novy. "This year, I and other U.S. potato breeders will be resubmitting promising entries from the 2011 trial, along with some newer breeding clones."
In December 2011, preliminary acrylamide formation test results were released on potatoes harvested in Washington and Idaho, with North Dakota analyses also now being completed. The tests were done in the order in which the potatoes were harvested. Acrylamide information is being collected from finished fries processed at the USDA lab in East Grand Forks, Minn., that were sent to laboratories at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
So far, certain clones show the most promise and have significantly fewer acrylamides than Russet Burbank and Ranger Russet, which are the check varieties for the testing, according to a news release from the USPB.
"The laboratory analyses aids in identifying low-acrylamide potato clones and varieties, but those clones must also have the agronomic and sensory attributes required by the processing industry," Novy said.
This year, research is being funded with a two-year, $3.7 million Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant sponsored by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The project will receive an additional $4 million for the final two years as long as the researchers meet goals and file progress reports.
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Paul Bethke and A.J. Bussan are overseeing the project.
"It's a huge collaboration," said Novy of the project and the SCRI Acrylamide Research Advisory Committee, whose members represent growers, processors, researchers, the USPB and the National Potato Council. "It's an excellent example of collaboration between the potato industry and researchers."
–Dianna Troyer, Spudman contributor
Pictured: Plant geneticist Rich Novy with clones in a greenhouse at the University of Idaho Aberdeen Research and Extension Center.