Manhattan — Some professors at Kansas State University think even your Thanksgiving fare could use a little dose of purple.
K-State researchers recently completed a lengthy process of breeding bright purple sweet potatoes, which are healthier than traditional sweet potatoes. The fruits, or vegetables, of their labor were made into brightly colored desserts that researchers think could one day sit alongside traditional holiday food.
Weiqun "George" Wang, associate professor of human nutrition, said the purple spuds have more anti-aging and antioxidant components than other sweet potatoes and are believed to have cancer-fighting qualities.
The potatoes' deep purple shade stems from anthocyanin, a pigment associated with reducing risks of cancer. The specially developed K-State spuds have very high levels of the anthocyanin. Derivatives of that pigment in the potatoes were found to inhibit human colon cancer cell growth, Wang said.
Wang said it took researchers several years to grow their brand of purple potatoes. More than 2,000 clones were grown through cross breeding until researchers found their prized tater. Researchers at K-State's John C. Pair Horticultural Center in Haysville grew the potatoes, which yielded a harvest of about 400 pounds this year.
K-State's spuds aren't yet available on the general market though other varieties of purple potatoes have been sold for years.
"Purple potatoes are available, but ours is very different," Wang said. "The color is much brighter than any commercial purple potato out there."
To test the purple potatoes on human subjects, Wang, other researchers and students baked what they called Purple Pride Sweet Potato Pies.
Doctoral candidate Soyoung Lim said orange-flesh sweet potatoes are known for being high in carotenoids, which the body digests into Vitamin A. But the purple potatoes have higher levels of anthocyanins, dietary fiber and other vitamins, Lim said. And they are naturally sweeter than regular sweet potatoes, so the pies require less sugar.
The pies were recently given away for donations to help cover some research costs, Wang said.
Though the deep color was surprising, Wang said most eaters enjoyed the taste of the pies.
"It actually is really good," he said. "People really liked them."
With the first batch of Purple Pride Sweet Potato Pies baked and consumed, Wang said researchers will continue to investigate the healing power of their taters. Wang is currently calling the potatoes a "functional food," which means a food known to have disease-preventing or health-promoting qualities.
Wang said the health-packed potatoes could be grown for commercial use once more testing is completed.
"Right now, we're just growing them for research purpose," he said. "We haven't thought about the market too much, but I think eventually we'll do that."