Hyderabad: For the country’s 46 million diabetic population, here is something good to chew on. Starting August, they should be able to buy sugar-free potatoes, if they are willing to pay a premium.
Potatoes contain starch that turns into glucose in course of time. In freshly harvested potatoes, the starch is as low as 1% but the level of glucose rises to 5-6% when stored at a low temperature in cold storages. This makes the typical stored potatoes, available post-harvest season, relatively unsafe for consumption by those with high sugar levels or diabetes.
India has the most diabetics in the world. According to the International Diabetes Federation, this number is expected to go up to almost 80 million by 2025, or 20% of an estimated world diabetic population of 230 million. According to a 2006 study by the consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, 70% of deaths due to diabetes occur in developing countries such as India and China.
Sugar-free potatoes are already used for making chips, but the average consumer has not been able to buy sugar-free potatoes directly from stores.
Now, Pooja Cold Storage, a small firm in Deesa, a north Gujarat town located 180km from the state’s commercial hub Ahmedabad, is readying to launch 5kg and 10kg packs of sugar-free potatoes. These potatoes will cost anywhere between 30% and 50% more than normal potatoes.
The firm has teamed up with the state government-promoted Potato Research Centre at Deesa that has been showing farmers how to to produce sugar-free potatoes.
Pooja does this by spraying the potatoes with a chemical. Technically, this is called the chloro iso profile phenomena carbament (CIPC) method. This brings down the sugar content in potato and increases the yield by 30-40%.
“About 10-15% of the farmers in the region who were earlier growing wheat and other crops have now taken up potato farming,” says Narayan Patel, research scientist at the Potato Research Centre of Deesa. The centre is also guiding farmers on selection of seeds and time of sowing.
“We have been encouraging farmers in Deesa and surrounding areas to cultivate more of sugar-free potatoes so that diabetic patients can eat them without the fear of adding to their calories or increasing sugar levels in their blood,” added Patel.
“We are also getting enquiries from companies such as Reliance Industries and Bharti Retail that are looking at this model closely,” says Arjun Patel, proprietor of Pooja Cold Storage.
Officials of both companies were unavailable for comment.
Patel says the company has already imported equipment from the Netherlands to sort and package the sugar-free potatoes.
Currently, these potatoes are grown in an estimated area of 40,000 hectares in Deesa and surrounding areas, with an average productivity of 300 quintals per hectare.
The Potato Research Centre has already released two varieties—DSP-7 and DSP-19—of high-yielding, low-sugar potatoes for cultivation. Patel claims both these varieties have been giving three-four tonnes more yield than the traditional Kufri Badshah variety that has been grown by farmers for more than two decades.
Deesa is one of the big potato growing centres in India. Apart from home-grown players such as Ajanta and Balaji Wafers, companies such as McCain of Canada and Reliance Industries Ltd, too, are sourcing potatoes from the region for their chips and retail business.
The Deesa potato has also found its way into West Asia and neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Gujarat produced over 10 million tonnes of potatoes last year, close to 50% of the annual potato production in India.
The domestic demand is growing due to increased use in fried and extruded products, soup powders, ready-to-eat meals and fast food.