USDA Red will give processors another option along with red lettuce, radicchio or chard in spring mixes, Beiquan Mou, a research geneticist for the ARS who developed the new variety, said in a release. It can also be frozen or canned, the agency said.
The red color is due to the phytonutrient betacyanin, an antioxidant shown to significantly reduce oxidative stress in patients. It also may help to prevent chronic pathologies, inflammation and cancer, according to research cited by ARS. The variety's antioxidant capacity is 42% to 53% higher than other spinach cultivars tested in the last three years, the agency added.
This new spinach variety could bring back production and consumption to where it was before the 2006 E. coli outbreak, ARS said in the release. That outbreak sickened 199 people in 26 states, hospitalized 102 of them and killed three, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ARS said per-capita consumption of fresh spinach fell that year from 2.3 pounds to 1.6 pounds and has never fully recovered.
USDA Red's nutrient profile is likely to be another asset, and its enhanced phytonutrient content makes spinach a true superfood, Mou said. ARS called spinach "one of the most desirable leafy vegetables" because of its high levels of beta-carotene, lutein, folate, vitamin C, calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium. USDA Red also has moderate resistance to bolting compared with other spinach varieties.
ARS is seeking a partner to license production of seeds for the market. It can take several years to breed a new spinach or other vegetable variety and bring it to market with certain qualities such as a specific color and resistance to disease. There are other leafy veggies that are sometimes called red spinach, ARS said. However, they are not true spinach but are really red-leaf amaranths or Red Goosefoot. A red-veined spinach type known as Bordeaux was used to develop USDA Red, the agency said.
Due to the enhanced color and antioxidant content, USDA Red may appeal to manufacturers and consumers looking for something new and nutritious. It will take more time to hit the market since seed production will be done by another party and not the federal government. There are other obstacles worth watching, too. It's uncertain whether consumers, used to green spinach, will be willing to try a red variety, especially if they believe it lacks the same nutrients as its popular counterpart. In addition, it's too early to know how much USDA red will cost. A higher price soon after its release could prevent it from gaining traction in the marketplace.