Group of scientists find 'sweet' solution to malnutrition and hunger

Posted July 18

Dr. Maria Andrade helped breed the vitamin A enrichment of the orange-fleshed sweet potato. (Deseret Photo)

A group of scientists specializing in sweet potato farming is being honored for making the root vegetable even more healthy and possibly reducing hunger for millions.

Reuters reported that Maria Andrade from Cape Verde, Robert Mwanga from Uganda and Americans Jan Low and Howarth Bouis were awarded the 2016 World Food Prize in a ceremony at the U.S. State Department Tuesday.

Their work in biofortification — introducing vitamins and nutrients into crops — will help in “dramatically reducing hidden hunger and improving health for millions and millions of people,” according to the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, Kenneth M. Quinn.

Andrade, Mwanga and Low all work in the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, where they work to “achieve food security, increased well-being and gender equity for poor people in the developing world.” Bouis is the director of the international research group HarvestPlus, one of the pioneering entities of biofortification in food crops.

The biofortification of sweet potatoes, according to HarvestPlus, can prevent morbidity from common infections and prevent blindness by increasing the amount of vitamin A within the vegetable. More than 95 percent of all sweet potatoes are grown in developing countries, making them ideal candidates for the biofortified crops.

“These four extraordinary World Food Prize Laureates have proven that science matters, and that when matched with dedication, it can change people’s lives,” said U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Gayle Smith in a speech announcing this year’s winners. “USAID and our Feed the Future partners are proud to join with renowned research organizations to support critical advances in global food security and nutrition.”

The winners will receive the $250,000 prize at the 30th anniversary of the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, this October. They will split the money equally.

The sweet potato's roots stretch back to A.D. 1000. Christopher Columbus is often credited with bringing the sweet potato to North America during his famous trek across the ocean, but a 2012 study by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that was not the case. It likely originated in Portugal, was then transferred to Caribbean and Asian countries and then brought to North America around 1500.

The vegetable is now widely recognized as a source of various nutrients, including vitamins A and C, manganese and potassium. It is not the same thing as a yam.

For more background on the sweet potato and how it differs from the enigmatic yam, try this video by the American iron chef, Alton Brown.

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