Things have been rough for the potato over the last decade or so. American consumers have been turning a cold shoulder toward the humble tuber, with each of us eating 22 pounds of potatoes less in 2012 compared to what we put down in 2000, the National Potato Council reports.
The slide has been steady, and both potato growers and agricultural scientists have taken note. If you’re young and have some expendable income, they’d like to sell you a potato with a little more pizzaz than the one your grandma overcooked.
"What we are doing now is developing unique varieties that have a tendency to appeal to the younger set with high income who are willing to try something different,” said Creighton Miller, a Texas A&M University horticultural scientist who turns out new breeds of potato and legume. “This has contributed somewhat to an increase in consumption of these types over the russets, which are still the standard.”
Breeding programs are constantly trying to improve potatoes to make them more disease and pest resistant, and to make them better suited to industrial processing like making chips and frozen french fries. But scientists are also combing through natural variations in potatoes to find characteristics that might make the fresh tubers more appealing to people.
At Michigan State University’s potato breeding and genetics program, researchers have developed one variety, called MSQ558-2RR, that has red skin and red, mottled flesh. When cut into chips, the color pattern looks almost like bursting fireworks. Another, called Raspberry, has bright red flesh and skin similar in color to the fruit’s juice. Another, called Purple Haze, sports splashes of purple on its skin.
(Raspberry, MSQ558-2RR and Spartan Splash photos courtesy of Michigan State University.)
In a nod to fitting the potato to different lifestyles in the modern world, Texas A&M’s Miller says his team has been working on plants that grow large amounts of smaller red potatoes. These cook much faster than larger varieties for working people who don’t have time at the end of a day to wait to eat.
“One of the reasons for the popularity of the smaller potato is with both spouses working, the amount of time required to prepare potatoes becomes an issue with some people,” Miller said. “With the small potatoes, they can be microwaved very fast and be on the table in a hurry.”
They have also been working on varieties that have purple skin and bright yellow flesh. Others have yellow skin that looks to be painted with red and purple accents. Besides being visually striking compared to the drab russet potato, the pigments that generate brighter colors also contain more of the phytochemicals that are believed to be healthier.
“These are referred to as gourmet potatoes and that niche is receiving more emphasis lately,” Miller said. “These are generally boiled and add unique color to the plate when served.”
Top Image: In addition to the traditional russet potato, the Texas A&M Potato Breeding and Variety Development Program led by Creighton Miller is producing a variety of colored gourmet potatoes. Photo courtesy Kay Ledbetter/TAMU.