The Pretty Purple Sweet Potato
September 24, 2013

The Pretty Purple Sweet Potato

Every day we eat foods that are colors of unnatural brilliance. I’m thinking of that neon green cupcake I saw at the cupcake bakery the other day. Even our candies come in colors that clearly have artificial dyes to make the coloring brilliant. Yes, these colors are absolutely fetching; we want that food because that color is so, well, colorful.

Yet many question the synthetic dyes that contribute to such bright, fun, and vibrant colors of our foods. Most of the recoil to synthetic dyes comes from those with health concerns about them. So, more and more, companies look to natural foods for plant-based dyes. Recently, redOrbit wrote about one such potential food for that eye-popping color: the purple sweet potato. The purple sweet potato certainly provides color in abundance. The bright and fun purple will catch any foody’s eyes. Plus, the dye would be purely plant based and thus natural, thereby avoiding the health issues that some synthetic dyes might contribute to.

A food chemist from Texas A&M University named Stephen Talcott researched the potential of the purple sweet potato. National Public Radio (NPR) reported that he said that the “purple sweet potato pigments are unique because they have “tremendous” color stability. In other words, they have more intense color and a wider color range — from raspberry red to grapelike purple — than other deeply hued fruits or vegetables. They’re also well-suited for food products because they have a neutral flavor — unlike grapes, which have good color but bitter tannins. The sweet potato pigments even boast slight health benefits — they are mildly anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic.”

Right, so I am on board for this natural dye. It’s natural and provides more antioxidants. Just what exactly is the problem? Why don’t we have more dye from the purple sweet potato in all its hues? Well, because this tuber is just not grown as prevalently as others. This means that the supply is few and far between, which makes the purple sweet potato expensive. NPR reported that as of the publication date of the article, the cost was $136 per pound.

Additionally, extracting the pigments from the purple sweet potato is not exactly easy. The hard texture of the potato makes it harder to extract the pigment. But Talcott’s lab has been trying to overcome this in order to help get more plant-based dyes on the market.

Even though the purple sweet potato is still being studied as an alternative, the real hope lies in the fact that scientists and companies recognize that some people want natural. The discussion about the effect of synthetic dyes and foods is far from over, but many consumers simply want more natural, more organic, and less synthetic foods. Period. For some, it is a matter of ethics, while others just want to avoid putting foods in their bodies that did not come from nature. Though there is no proof that natural and organic foods and food products provide more nutrients, the fact that we ingest less chemicals is good.

I try to eat natural and organic foods whenever I can. Mostly this is because I do not like pesticides and synthetic chemicals and foods. Also, it is because I have health issues that demand I carefully watch what I eat. I especially try to eat organic fruits, veggies, and non-wheat-based grains. I am not opposed to conventional (that is, non-organic) fruits and veggies, though. I will purchase and eat them whenever organic is not available. Similarly, I avoid synthetic foods whenever I can as well, which includes synthetic dyes. I can’t always do this, but I do put forth the effort when I can. For these reasons, I love reading about studies like this one on the purple sweet potato. I am of the opinion that the more we can get back to the natural foods (like in Paleo or Mediterranean diets), the better our foods will be.

Make no mistake, though…I do not judge those who eat synthetic foods. I want to inspire people to eat healthier, better foods, but not shame them for not doing so. I try to do this through exposure to more natural foods, like plant-based dyes.

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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