BOZEMAN, Mont. – Montana State University researchers have found several varieties of potatoes that could foil one of the scourges of the modern world: type 2 diabetes.
Researchers in the Sands’ Research Lab at MSU’s Plant Science Department have found low glycemic index potatoes that do not cause the rapid spike in blood sugar that comes with eating starchy foods. Sugar spikes can be dangerous for diabetics who lack the insulin to handle it and have been linked to cancer, heart disease and other conditions.
Although potatoes provide valuable carbohydrates and vitamins with minimal fat, most varieties have a high glycemic index, which means they are rapidly digested and boost blood sugar dangerously fast. MSU currently has six varieties that have a lower glycemic index than russet Burbank or Yukon Gold potatoes, which are rated high on the glycemic index.
That means diabetics and others watching their carbohydrate intake can have their potatoes and eat them, too.
“We want to let people know that if they have to watch their GI there are potatoes out there they can eat,” said Alice Pilgeram, an assistant research professor. “We are hoping that this will create more demand for these potatoes, and seed producers will grow more, turning it into a nice specialty market for the Montana seed producers.”
The timing couldn’t be better. According to the American Diabetes Association, 23.6 million adults and children, or 7.8 percent of the population of the United States, have diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in three adults may develop diabetes by 2050 if current trends continue.
The research was funded in part by a three-year, $154,000 Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education grant the Sands’ Lab received in 2012. The SARE program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to advance sustainable, profitable and environmentally sound farm and ranch systems. That same year the lab also received a $50,000 grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
Varieties of potato with low GI are commercially available in niche markets in Europe and Australia, but not in the United States. So researchers screened the starch profiles of over 110 varieties of U.S. potatoes, evaluating the agronomic performance of the most promising 10, eventually whittling that number down to six.
The potatoes are not genetically modified. Rather, researchers analyzed existing varieties and used traditional breeding methods to select for desirable traits.
Those six were then planted in experimental field plots in Williston, N.D., and Parma, Idaho, during the 2015 growing season. The lines will be further increased this winter at California Polytechnic University Pomona and test marketed.
“These plants already exist in the old seed banks,” Pilgeram said. “Breeders overlooked their attributes because they were looking for yield and pest resistance.”
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The subtext of the potato research has to do with the trade-offs inherent in modern plant breeding, which has historically put high agronomic yield, easy and consistent processing, and disease and pest resistance before nutrition, said Montana State University Professor of Plant Pathology David Sands.
“Every crop should be as nutritious as possible,” Sands said. “Too often, agriculture has been driven by interest in farmer profit and with good reason. But we think if you please the consumer with these high nutrition items, the farmer will take care of herself very well.”
In other words, building the market demand for low GI crops like the potatoes, but also low GI field peas and durum wheat developed in MSU labs, goes hand in hand with building the production of them.
“They have to ratchet up together,” Sands said.
One way to build market demand is by collaborating with diabetic support groups, similar to a past collaboration MSU researchers had with the American Celiac Society to bolster Montana-produced, gluten-free crops and products.
Another way is to focus on the garden seed market, natural markets, farmers markets and health markets.
To meet that demand, MSU researchers plan to work with the Montana seed potato industry to scale-up seed potato production in Montana and the Northwest. Montana has a well-regarded seed potato industry that supplies certified seed potatoes to commercial potato producers across the country.
Only cultivars that have been certified virus- and bacterial-free by the MSU Seed Potato Lab can be planted in Montana. Of the 110 cultivars screened by MSU, one of the six lowest GI cultivars, Huckleberry Gold, has already been released by the Potato Lab and is in production by four Montana certified seed suppliers. Certification of the other five cultivars is in progress.
Huckleberry Gold, released by the Tri-State Potato Commission, is a nutritious variety that produces round to oval tubers more resistant to growth cracks, secondary growth and hollow heart than Yukon Gold and with high antioxidant concentrations and good resistance to common scab and Verticillium wilt.
“It’s a beautiful potato with purple skin and yellow flesh,” Pilgeram said.
The other lines are working their way through the Montana seed potato certification system. This certification requires several generations and the lines will not be ready for release to growers for at least two seasons. The lines are being increased on a non-certified basis for market testing at California Polytechnic University Pomona. Limited quantities of these tubers will be made available to gardeners throughout the Northwest (but not Montana).
Huckleberry seed is available from Montana Seed Potato (http://www.mtseedpotato.org/), which sells 50 pound boxes of seed potato to plant nurseries and county extension. Interested growers should contact their local nursery or county extension to ask them to order the Huckleberry Gold seed potato.