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Biofortified Sweet Potatoes: Making Orange Acceptable
By: Zoe Womack, Policy and Research Intern
To honor the 2016 World Food Prize Laureates, this blog is the fourth in a series on biofortification, featuring global scientific advancements and their potential for improving lives and nutrition around the world. For more detailed information on the background of biofortification, check out our first blog here.
The sweet potato is rich in carbohydrates, fiber, and micronutrients (vitamins B, C, and E) and provides energy to many who consume it throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas. The orange-fleshed sweet potato is a variety that is especially important as it is a good source of beta-carotene, the pre-cursor to vitamin A. In fact, just 125 grams of this type of sweet potato can meet the daily pro-vitamin A needs of a preschooler.
In parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness, disease and premature death among children under five and pregnant women. Because the sweet potato is grown and consumed in many of these countries, agricultural scientists thought it would be a good candidate for biofortification (breeding for higher nutritional value) and would be more easily accepted than bio-fortified other crops.
The communities that suffer from vitamin A deficiency usually grow varieties of sweet potatoes that are white-fleshed with lighter skin, and lack high levels of beta-carotene. Scientists such as the World Food Prize Laureates decided to cross-breed local white varieties with the orange-skinned variety in order to improve the nutritional value of the product, resulting in the Orange Sweet Potato (OSP).
After testing the new variety for nutritional content, organizations including HarvestPlus and the International Potato Center (CIP) began a wider campaign to bridge the consumer understanding gap between the familiar white sweet potatoes and the new orange-skinned varieties. They wanted communities to equate the color orange with good health and nutrition, and they did this through innovative marketing techniques.
The orange brand of the new sweet potatoes appeared everywhere, from murals, to bumper stickers, to t-shirts. Using social media and radio, scientists and community workers alike promoted the colorful change.
It was important to communicate with mothers about the valuable nutritional properties of the product, as they were already comfortable with preparing and cooking sweet potatoes. Children liked the taste and appearance, making it easier to switch to the OSP variety.
Beginning in 2007, HarvestPlus introduced the OSP to Uganda and Mozambique. Since then, CIP and HarvestPlus are expanding the crop to 855,000 households across 10 countries in the coming years. The increased intake of beta-carotene will decrease vitamin A deficiency in these households, helping many children lead more healthy lives.