COLLEGE STATION – Peach cobbler. Peaches and cream. Peaches and antioxidants?
Dessert with this fleshy fruit is healthier than expected, researchers are finding. And new varieties yielding even greater levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants and other phytochemicals will be typical for new varieties in coming years, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station horticulturist believes.
"The trend is to develop varieties that have more health benefits, because the public is becoming more health conscious and making decisions based on that," said Dr. David Byrne, Experiment Station researcher who has been breeding peaches for about 20 years. "Twenty years ago, the (breeding) emphasis was on big and pretty. That's still important, but now we are looking at quality and trying to develop peaches with better health benefits."
Peaches already rank high in some types of phytochemicals. Preliminary results from a test conducted by Byrne and Dr. Luis Cisneros-Zevallos, Experiment Station food technologist, showed that peaches have good to excellent antioxidant activity, some antimicrobial activity, potential for use as a natural food colorant, and good to excellent tumor growth inhibition activity.
"We're developing the groundwork to show that peaches really do have the health benefits," Byrne said. "The first step is to understand what the phytochemicals do, to make sure they are doing something useful so that we can increase the levels effectively.
"There is a lot of active work in this area to increase the health benefits and the flavor as well as to extend the range of adaptation," Byrne said.
Peach research can only pay off for growers and consumers alike. People in the United States eat almost 10 pounds apiece each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Economic Research Service, more than half of that being fresh fruit such as that grown in Texas.
But peach breeding is not for the impatient. In fact, Byrne has three new varieties available this year – meaning they could be at grocery stores by 2005 – that are the result of 10-15 years of field trials.
Tropic Prince, TexKing and TexPrince all were bred by Byrne to help Texas growers meet certain market windows, or times during the season when fresh peaches are otherwise not available to consumers in local grocery stores.
Byrne has spent his career trying to give Texas growers varieties that will fruit in areas that typically do not have the hours of cold temperatures required by peach trees to yield fruit.
Peach aficionados call it chill. Peaches are native to areas of China where it is a lot colder, a lot longer each year than the southern United States. Peach trees bred for the northern climes, therefore, need at least 650 hours -- or almost a month's worth -- of temperatures around 45 degrees before they will flower and fruit.
"What we've done is develop varieties that don't need a lot of chilling, to extend the areas that can grow peaches," said Byrne, whose breeding selection process focuses on medium chill (350-550 hours) to low chill (under 350 hours) more consistent with Texas production areas.
That's what the three new varieties offer. TexKing and TexPrince both are medium chill varieties needing only 450-550 chill hours. TexKing has an early ripening season whereas TexPrince is a mid-season peach. Tropic Prince is a low chill peach that needs only about 150 chill hours making it a good choice for growing in South Texas and southern Florida to California, as well as many other subtropical and tropical regions of the world.
For the southern peach grower, a variety with a low chill requirement means the crop can be grown to fill the market when no other peaches are available. That translates into more profits. Consumers get better quality available from local production consistently throughout the season, Byrne explained.
Byrne sees continued challenges for peach breeding beyond creating varieties that are disease-resistant and tolerant of erratic weather. Keeping current traits while twisting the breeding program toward varieties with appropriate levels of phytochemicals – plus envisioning new trends in peaches such as flat, do-nut like varieties – is the challenge for breeders where one variety may take a decade to develop.
"Peach growers want something to sell on the local market," Byrne said, "and with the health aspect being the trend in produce marketing, peach growers really want to take advantage of that."
Materials provided by Texas A&M University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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