You may or may not have noticed a new potato in town at your local grocer or more likely at your local health food store.
It is called the purple potato, named for its deep purple skin as well as the purple flesh within it.
Purple potatoes are a type of potato popular in South America, with their origins in Peru and Bolivia. These potatoes have many uses and a striking purple color that can brighten up any dish. Besides adding color to your table, these potatoes can be beneficial to your health due to their abundance of antioxidants.
Purple potatoes are available year-round and are typically dry and starchy with a slightly earthy and nutty flavor.
All potatoes are naturally high in potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure. But the extra antioxidants in purple potatoes make them even more effective than other potato varieties.
It is rich in the antioxidant that is characteristic of deeply colored blue or purple produce called anthocyanin.
This compound is from the powerful flavonoid family of antioxidants and is found in other nutritional powerhouse foods such as blueberries and pomegranates. It is most well-known for its immunity boosting and cancer-fighting properties.
Baked purple-fleshed potatoes suppressed the growth of colon cancer tumors in Petri dishes and in mice by targeting cancer’s stem cells. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. and responsible for more than 50,000 deaths annually, according to the American Cancer Society.
Attacking stem cells is an effective way to counter cancer, according to Jairam K.P. Vanamala, associate professor of food sciences, Penn State and faculty member, at the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute.
“You might want to compare cancer stem cells to roots of the weeds,” Vanamala said. “You may cut the weed, but as long as the roots are still there, the weeds will keep growing back and, likewise, if the cancer stem cells are still present, the cancer can still grow and spread.”
The researchers, who released their findings in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, currently online, used a baked purple potato because potatoes are widely consumed and typically baked before they are consumed, especially in western countries. They wanted to make sure the vegetables maintained their anti-cancer properties even after cooking.
According to the researchers, there may be several substances in purple potatoes that work simultaneously on multiple pathways to help kill the colon cancer stem cells, including anthocyanins and chlorogenic acid, and resistant starch.
“Our earlier work and other research studies suggest that potatoes, including purple potatoes, contain resistant starch, which serves as a food for the gut bacteria, that the bacteria can covert to beneficial short-chain fatty acids such as butyric acid,” Vanamala said. “The butyric acid regulates immune function in the gut, suppresses chronic inflammation and may also help to cause cancer cells to self-destruct.”
In addition to resistant starch, the same color compounds that give potatoes, as well as other fruits and vegetables, a rainbow of vibrant colors may be effective in suppressing cancer growth, he added.
“When you eat from the rainbow, instead of one compound, you have thousands of compounds, working on different pathways to suppress the growth of cancer stem cells,” said Vanamala. “Because cancer is such a complex disease, a silver bullet approach is just not possible for most cancers.”
Using evidenced-based foods as a proper cancer prevention strategy could complement current and future anti-cancer drug therapies. Vanamala said that foods could actually offer a healthier way to prevent cancer because they often have limited side effects compared to drug treatments.
“Indeed, we have seen that the animals that consumed purple potatoes are healthier compared to animals that received drug treatment,” said Vanamala.
Purple potatoes could be potentially used in both primary and secondary prevention strategies for cancer, Vanamala suggested. Primary prevention is aimed at stopping the initial attack of cancer, while secondary prevention refers to helping patients in remission remain cancer-free.