Potato industry looks to reduce harmful chemical compound

Stakeholders co-operate in new evaluation system focusing on reducing acrylamide that can accumulate during storage

french fries

Acrylamide reduction is a priority for a coalition of potato industry stakeholders, according to Steve Vernon, vice-president of quality and innovation for J.R. Simplot Company.

Acrylamide is a potentially harmful chemical compound that is produced in potatoes cooked at high temperatures. Vernon told this year’s Manitoba Potato Production Days in Brandon that the coalition has set out to develop new potato varieties for quick-service restaurants (QSRs). It includes the United States Potato Board, McCain, Lamb Weston, Cavendish Farms and Simplot, as well as potato breeders, growers, agronomists and several universities.

McDonald’s and Wendy’s led the QSR groups. Simplot processed potato varieties grown in Washington, Idaho, and North Dakota while McCain pro-cessed varieties grown in Maine and Wisconsin. The coalition is now into its fifth year of variety testing.

“All of the processors have had their own potato-breeding programs and worked with the potato breeder community,” Vernon says. “However, the potato evaluation system I discussed in Brandon was the first one that not only involved multiple processors but all of the potato-breeding experts, universities, and two of the larger QSRs.”

Acrylamide reduction was the main driver in the project. “The compounds in a potato that can create acrylamide tend to accumulate over time in storage, and thus a second priority was to focus on replacing those potato varieties that are held in controlled storages for extended periods of time, such as Russet Burbank,” Vernon says.

Agronomic and physical attributes of new varieties analyzed by the coalition include yield and specific gravity, tuber size and shape, storage ability, colour and sugar ends, disease resistance and defects.

“The Simplot Company and the other french fry processors, along with the breeders, growers and QSRs, screen fries produced from new varieties, based on a lengthy set of finished product specifications,” Vernon says. “These specifications centre around sensory attributes and physical attributes. There is consensus from all involved parties as to the grading criteria.”

Sensory attributes of McDonald’s “gold standard” fries include colour that is “bright, light golden brown with natural colour highlights; internally white and fluffy, like a freshly baked potato with slight separation of crust from flesh.”

The list of defects is long, says Vernon. Breeders, growers, processors, and QSRs have some defects they can control and some they cannot control. “Examples of defects the breeder needs to consider when making crosses would include excessive yellow colour, grey colour and both too short and too long. The grower has some degree of influence, and weather also plays a part, over dark ends, green, too long, and too short.”

The trials have resulted in positive developments, according to Vernon, with a sufficient number of new varieties with reduced acrylamide levels, but at the outset of the breeding and processing trials, the coalition found that many varieties could not “move the needle downward” with regard to acrylamide reduction. “As the breeders found more appropriate clones to cross we had more success creating reduced-acrylamide french fries,” he says.

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