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Research on orange flesh sweet potatoes continues to amaze

The U.S. Sweet Potato Council, along with growers, marketers and state-based organizations, has a lot to be happy about these days. Sweet potato demand has grown by approximately 20 percent per year for the past several years. Hardly a day goes by that sweet potatoes aren’t popping up in front of consumers’ faces in food magazines, cookbooks and on television shows. And the more scientific research that is done on sweet potatoes, the more good news surfaces about its nearly miraculous benefits.

“The ‘mighty’ orange flesh sweet potato is the only major vegetable that contains four nutrients that exceed 10 percent of the recommended daily amount, according to U.S. Food & Drug Administration,” said Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, headquartered in Columbia, SC. “Those four nutrients are vitamin A, or beta carotene, vitamin C, Fiber and PNCSPC1sp-harvest-tractorSweet potatoes being harvested in a North Carolina field. (Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission)otassium.”

Mr. Walker, a virtual walking encyclopedia on the health and nutritional value of sweet potatoes, is also the go-to guy for information on just about everything related to sweet potatoes, including growers’ issues and challenges, the state of the sweet potato economy and insight into what the future may bring to professionals who deal in the commodity. Each day for the past year he has searched the Internet for sweet potatoes, printing and categorizing the information that shows up on his Google alerts.

“One category is called ‘sweet potatoes and Beta Carotene,’ another is ‘sweet potatoes and vitamin C,’ and so forth,” said Mr. Walker. “I have about a dozen categories. Now, as we are heading into fall, the alerts are really picking up because it’s when people think about sweet potatoes more. I print out just the primary information, and I now have about a five-foot stack of papers sitting in my office.”

He plans to go through all of the information again and break it down into an outline that he will present to the council’s board of directors at the 51st annual U.S. Sweet Potato Convention Jan. 20-22, 2013, which is being hosted by The Sweet Potato Farmers of North Carolina at the Westin Charlotte, in Charlotte, NC.

“With the compilation of this material in hand, the board of directors can then decide how to best use it to the sweet potato industry’s advantage,” said Mr. Walker.

Of all of the information he has collected, a few key issues in particular stand out. One is the recent news release regarding the results of a study conducted at the University of Ulm in Germany by researchers, including Epidemiologist Gabriele Nagel and the Neurologist Christine von Arnim. In the study, serum concentration of the antioxidants vitamin C and beta carotene were shown to be significantly lower in patients with mild dementia than in control persons. This opens the door to the possibility of influencing Alzheimer’s dementia by a person’s diet or dietary antioxidants.

“We already know that orange fleshed sweet potatoes are the single most nutritional fresh produce item in the world,” he said. “And that’s not just boasting. The Center for Science in the Public Interest names sweet potatoes the No. 1 most nutritious food because they are loaded with carotenoids, vitamin C, potassium and fiber.”

And who knew that sweet potatoes could be the superhero in ending world hunger? Apparently, they are. ONE, a grassroots advocacy and campaigning organization that fights extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa, has a campaign in action now that aims to do just that.

Headed by Roxane Philson, ONE global creative director, the project demonstrates how, by providing much-needed nutrients like vitamins C, A and B6 to undernourished children, sweet potatoes are helping to avert stunting and ensuring proper growth. In addition, sweet potatoes are cheap to produce and they’re easy to grow in uncertain conditions: perfect for regions prone to drought and famine.

Although more than 7 million tons of sweet potatoes are produced each year and widely consumed in Africa, they are white in color and low in vitamin A, a vitamin that helps prevent blindness and infant mortality. But several years ago, a Ugandan breeder, in collaboration with an international research association, developed a new orange-colored variety of sweet potato that is loaded with orange-hued beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A.

More than 24,000 households in Uganda and Mozambique received the orange sweet potato vine to harvest in a pilot program between 2007 and 2009. The program resulted in increases in orange sweet potato adoption and consumption. Impressively, vitamin A intake by women and children as much as doubled. For children 6 to 35 months, who are especially vulnerable, the orange sweet potatoes contributed more than 50 percent of their total vitamin A intake.

But there is even more, and more recent, great sweet potato news.

“Good news regarding sweet potatoes continues to come our way,” said Mr. Walker Sept. 19. “We have just received a six-page article in the summer edition of the Georgia State University Magazine. It appears, based on research discussed in this article, that sweet potato plant extract may be effective in fighting cancer. God bless sweet potatoes.”

The paper, authored by Jeremy Craig, is a profile on the work being done by Ritu Aneja, an associate professor of biology, whose lab in the Petit Science Center focuses on mitosis, or the process of cell division. But the fight against cancer is Ms. Aneja’s endgame.

“There has been a lot of progress in our understanding of how cells behave and the pathogenesis of cancer, but we really don’t know how to find the magic bullet,” Ms. Aneja said in the article.

She noted that there may be no magic bullet — no single chemical compound that will be the sole answer to successfully treating cancer, but she and her lab are working on a natural way that brings multiple compounds to the table that work together to kill cancerous cells and prevent their proliferation — all the while serving as a treatment that is much safer to patients and their caregivers.

Ms. Aneja has discovered through an unlikely source that a plant eaten for centuries by different cultures around the world might just provide the answer: the leafy greens of the sweet potato plant.