Ireland as we know it, but with purple spuds

21 Sep 2016

Ever wanted all the goodness of a berry in a bag of crisps? Paul Watts, inventor of the purple potato, talks to Emily McDaid about the latest innovation in agriculture.

Many people are aware that blueberries are a so-called ‘superfood’, without perhaps understanding why. The blue in the berry is the important factor – fruits and vegetables with deep colouring are highly beneficial to our health, a fact that became apparent to food scientists in the mid-1990s.

Paul Watts, a scientist from the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), tells us: “The blue in the berry comes from a chemical compound called anthocyanin, which is full of anti-oxidants,” said Watts.

Once the health-boosting compound was identified, Paul embarked on a process of adding this chemical to root vegetables that grow abundantly in the Irish climate. Enter the purple potato.

Inspirefest 2017

Watts said, “We developed Purple Magic after years of screening through large numbers of seedlings and picking the best. The plant needed to be high-yielding, with disease-resistance qualities, so we crossed some flavourful heritage varieties with some of the hardy varieties you’d see in the supermarket. The idea was to boost the overall levels of anthocyanins by having them in the flesh as well as the skin.”

This has been a long process, as Watts indicates is common in generating new crop varieties. “We made the first cross for Purple Magic back in 2003 – that’s 13 years of research that has gone into this product.”

The purple potato has a high dry matter content, which means that it has strong flavour while still being fryable enough to be turned into crisps and chips. This is critical because Watts feels Purple Magic will enter the mass market as a processed product firstly, with sales of the actual potato in supermarkets only coming later with further development.

The potato is a niche variety that will initially be more suitable for markets, restaurants and specialty shops. On the crisp side already, Purple Magic is being marketed in the US and Canada under a sub-licence with Solanum International. A major crisp manufacturer in North America called Terra Chips is producing ‘Blues’ potato crisps with a distinctive white ring around the edge.

Terra potato crisps

AFBI will continue to hold the licensing rights for the potato, with full IP protection being put into place now, while distribution is handled by experts like Solanum.

Purple Magic is now in the running for the Invent Awards Agri-Science category. On its success, Watts said: “It surprised me that it would be eligible, to be honest!

“But I was approached by Peter Edgar who told me indeed this innovation would be recognised in the awards. The great thing about Purple Magic is that it’s an easily understandable concept, and novel food items always get people excited. Still, I never thought I’d get this far.”

Paul Watts, Purple Magic

Paul Watts (right) with host Ryan Hand at the Invent Award Semi-Finals pitch night

If he won the £13,000 grand prize money, Watts would put his winnings back into the company. “I think I’d invest some of the money into developing more coloured potato varieties, and we need to do more research into the effect of different cooking methods on these chemicals.”

Sinead Dillon offered some thoughts on behalf of sponsor Fujitsu on the innovative crop: “As Northern Ireland celebrates the Year of Food and Drink 2016, it seems all the more fitting to nurture and reward the ‘cream of the crop’ in agri-innovation. Innovation is of paramount importance to the continued success of the agri-food industry both here and globally as food supply and security issues continue to grow.”

Purple potato

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland