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UW–Madison to lead national effort to improve quality of processed potatoes

October 14, 2011 By Nicole Miller

University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers have been selected to lead a national, multi-institution effort to improve the quality of processed potatoes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced today (Oct. 14).

The $3.7 million Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant will support an effort to reduce the amount of acrylamide — a potential carcinogen commonly found starchy foods cooked at high temperature — in processed potato products without sacrificing the taste and texture that make these products so popular with consumers.

“Acrylamide is an unwanted compound in these products that we didn’t know was there until 2002. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not determined if acrylamide at the low levels found in foods is a serious health concern, but it is much better to be out in front of this,” says the project’s leader, Paul Bethke, a UW–Madison assistant professor of horticulture and USDA-ARS plant physiologist.

The project was developed with major input from key stakeholders in the fresh, frozen processed and chip potato industries representing all major potato growing areas in the United States. More than 30 representatives from these sectors and the end-user community make up the project’s advisory committee, including growers, processors, major food vendors, the U.S. Potato Board and the National Potato Council. 

The grant will involve scientists from 10 universities and USDA labs from around the nation who will work to develop potatoes that produce less acrylamide when they are cooked. This involves searching for varieties with low levels of reducing sugars and the amino acid asparagine, which combine to produce acrylamide during high temperature cooking. They will also hunt for helpful molecular markers to use in breeding new varieties. Industry partners will grow, store and cook the potatoes and assess their key traits.

The goal of the four-year project is to provide the industry with four new chip potato and four new fry potato lines that yield chips, fries and similar products that have reduced acrylamide levels and meet with consumer approval.

 “This award isn’t just about Wisconsin, it’s for the entire potato industry,” says UW–Madison associate professor of horticulture A.J. Bussan, who helped develop the grant. “The coordinated, nationwide involvement is unprecedented. It shows the amount of attention industry is paying to this issue.”