The New Potato on the Block

The low-glycemic potato was developed for diabetics, but can also increase gut health and promote sustainable weight loss.

Some people say potato, and some weirdos say po-tah-to, but there are actually many different varieties of potatoes with different tastes, textures, compositions and even health benefits. The Potato Research Centre (PRC) in Fredericton, New Brunswick is dedicated to developing new strains of potatoes. One of their newest varieties is the low glycemic index (GI) potato, a potato bred to have a lesser impact on blood sugar levels.

The PRC works with industry to help identify their needs as well as those of consumers. Every year they host an Open House Day, where potato seeders, marketers, growers and processors are invited to view the most advanced varieties available. If they’re interested they can acquire seeds to evaluate them on the commercial field. Through that process, industry can get the final input into what they would like to see from these new potatoes.

Dr. Benoit Bizimungu, Head Potato Researcher at the PRC says the low-GI potato was bred to meet the needs of health conscious consumers.

“We know that more and more consumers are paying attention to what they eat. More information is available and people are becoming more educated. They’ve become more evolved in their health choices,” said Dr. Bizimungu.

“That’s a trend you cannot forget in breeding, we can have a product that is better suited to health conscious consumers.”

   Dr. Benoit Bizimungu, Head Potato Researcher at the potato Research Centre, tends to some potatoes.

Dr. Benoit Bizimungu, Head Potato Researcher at the potato Research Centre, tends to some potatoes.

The average potato has a high-GI. Foods with a high-GI spike blood sugar levels after being eaten. This is typically due to them being easily digestible, which leads to the body transforming them into glucose more quickly which is then released into the blood stream. If humans were cars, glucose would be the “fuel” that we run on, but overloading on that fuel too quickly can have dire consequences over the long-term.

For most people, high glucose levels result in the pancreas producing insulin, a hormone that works to regulate glucose levels and diverts glucose into cells for usage. But for diabetics, either the pancreas or insulin no longer function correctly, which leads to the glucose staying in the blood which can lead to a variety of health problems down the road.

Diabetics have to closely monitor their blood sugar levels as well as what they eat to try and maintain a proper balance. With the development of the low-GI potato, diabetics can have a bit more leeway when they eat some fries, chips or a baked potato.

There are other benefits to this potato variety as well. It achieves its low-GI by being composed of more resistant starch. Resistant starch gets its name because it is resistant to many digestive enzymes. This results in it being turned into digestive fiber which is excellent for creating a healthy gut ecosystem.

It can also be used to help achieve sustainable weight loss. This has to do with the insulin reaction whenever a person eats food that has a high-GI. In extremely simplified terms, when a person eats something that results in a glucose spike, the pancreas starts creating insulin to divert that glucose into cells. Once that process is over, your body then thinks that it now doesn’t have enough glucose and activates your appetite so you eat and get some more. This is why you will sometimes feel hungry quickly after eating large meals, or feel snacky when you still feel physically full. By eating low-GI foods you avoid the spike in glucose and the insulin reaction, resulting in a spontaneous reduction of appetite and calorie intake.

All the potatoes at the PRC are created through traditional breeding practices. This allows all the PRC potatoes to avoid being labelled as a GMO, which many consumers stray away from.

“Our breeding program has always been conventional. We have many genetic resources we use, we have some local strains and some exotic strains, but everything has been conventionally bred. So far from what we hear consumers are looking more for conventionally bred varieties,” said Dr. Bizimungu

Parkland Seed Potatoes is currently doing work to evaluate this potato variety, which they’ve named “AAC-Hamer”.  While they are still conducting human trials to determine its position on the glycemic scale, they’ve found that the variety has other attractive aspects as a chipper potato, meaning it is an excellent candidate to be used as a potato chip. It also has an appealing look that customers like when selecting fresh potatoes.

Dr. Bizimungu says that while the low-GI potato is his current focus, there are many other varieties on the way.

“Nutrition is one component of our program. We also want to make our farmers more competitive by producing more with less inputs, and improving pest resistance to allow farmers to use less chemicals. We also are looking to pursue the qualities that make a better French-fry or chip as those are also huge markets for potatoes. “