The new initiative was started in response to recent declines in peanut production in southern Plains states, and aims for improved crop production that allows for less pesticide use and greater product quality and safety, said the researchers.
The US Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) ARS has been working on developing better peanuts for decades, but it has now teamed up with the Oklahoma Peanut Commission and state research and extension professionals with the aim of producing a steady supply of "tasty, fresh and healthful" peanuts.
According to unit research leader Dave Porter, the new program "fortifies and expands our work to enhance, through breeding, the genetic diversity of peanut plants and to come up with superior peanut products."
Indeed, since scientific research revealed that oleic acid may promote lower serum cholesterol levels and so help prevent heart disease, a growing number of high oleic ('good' fat) peanuts have become available to peanut growers.
The key to the new work is that it combines traits of peanut plants that resist plant diseases with those that can boost the peanut's oleic acid content.
And although the nation's major peanut-production areas include Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama, the southern Plains states also have a significant industry, which was recently hit by declines in production.
"Southwest US peanut producers desperately need new, high-quality, disease-resistant peanut cultivars," said Porter, adding that the ARS' new initiative is "focused on delivering these needed products to the producer as quickly as possible. Reinvigorating peanut production in the Southwest is vital to ensuring a safe, stable supply of American peanuts to consumers worldwide."
Peanut research at the ARS' research unit in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where the new program is based, is currently jointly led by plant pathologist Hassan Melouk, one of the researchers who first developed cultivars to possess both blight resistance and better quality oil with high oleic acid content.
Indeed, another advantage of high-oleic peanuts is that they increase the shelf life of peanut products, by staving off deterioration.
But according to research conducted last year by scientists at the University of Florida, peanuts stand strong, even without high oleic acid levels.
Their findings suggested that despite the high-fat levels of peanuts, they may be as rich in disease-preventing antioxidants as many fruits.
"When it comes to antioxidant content, peanuts are right up there with strawberries," said Steve Talcott, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "We expected a fairly high antioxidant content in peanuts, but we were a bit shocked to find that they're as rich in antioxidants as many kinds of fruit."
Antioxidants are chemicals that block the aging effects of free radicals - unstable molecules naturally occurring in the human body that damage living cells. The damage caused by free radicals has been linked to heart disease, stroke, certain cancers and macular degeneration of the eye.
Talcott said roasted peanuts are about as rich in antioxidants as blackberries or strawberries, and richer in the chemicals than fruits such as apples, carrots or beets.
The researchers' findings were part of a broader study designed to measure the nutritional differences between traditional peanut breeds and the growing number of high oleic peanuts. However, the tests showed no significant differences in antioxidant content between high-oleic and traditional peanuts.