Sweet potato marketers have noted the nutritional and value-added halos have built a large following, but they also say there’s plenty of room for further growth.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported per capita U.S. sweet potato consumption at 7.2 pounds in 2012, the latest year available.
That’s up from 6.3 pounds in 2010 and 4.2 pounds in 2000 and similar to the 5 pounds Americans consumed through most of the 1970s.
But, even the highest recent consumption trends are nothing compared to where they have been — and where they could go, said George Wooten, president of Chadbourn, N.C.-based grower-shipper Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.
Wooten noted that sweet potato consumption in 1930 was 28.5 pounds per capita before diving to less than 4 pounds by 1993.
That’s partially the result of industry failure to “proactively” meet the demands of consumers, Wooten said.
“The white potato industry changed with the times. They did whatever it took to make it work,” Wooten said.
Sweet potato suppliers were slow to respond to the spike in restaurant business – and the sales potential that it brought – in the 1990s, Wooten said.
“That’s when half of the food dollars were spent outside the home,” he said.
In recent years, though, studies have revealed some potential nutritional gold inside sweet potatoes. Marketers started to highlight the product’s cache of complex carbohydrates, fiber, beta-carotene vitamins and minerals.
The onset of the microwaveable and “steamer bag” offerings enhanced the product’s value-added bona fides, Wooten said.
Sales have climbed notably over the last decade, Wooten said.
“With this steamer bag, it takes 8 minutes to fix it, and it’s almost as good as grandma’s,” he said.
Sales will continue to increase, Wooten said.
“We’re going to get there,” he said.
Promotions extolling sweet potatoes’ superfood status, as well as their convenience, are bound to keep sales rolling, said Stephanie Williams, sales manager with Scott Farms, a Lucama, N.C.-based grower-shipper.
“Strategic marketing and promotions has put the word out there that sweet potatoes are an ideal and healthy choice,” she said. “Their convenience and versatility is also very appealing and has paved the way for more value added options to enter the marketplace.”
Consumers are savvier today than before, and that leads them to sweet potatoes, said Norman Brown, sales director for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Group LLC’s sweet potato unit in Raleigh, N.C.
“There are a lot of consumers who have seen articles in the media or searched the Web and have discovered how nutritionally loaded the sweet potato is, and that has certainly support a portion of the sales success,” he said.
There also are millions more who don’t know about the health and nutritional benefits of the product, so there is more work ahead, he said.
“Most consumers have a passed down sense that apples, oranges and bananas are good for you, but few consumers would know about and fiber, antioxidant, vitamin C or potassium content of a sweet potato,” Brown said.
That will change as the word spreads, Brown said.
“With growing interest in eating healthier, and health and wellness becoming more important, point-of-purchase material that highlights the ‘sweet potato superfood’ will support the growth of new customers, which will translate into new sales,” he said.
There are other important attributes that lead to higher sales, too, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission Inc., Benson.
“Of even more benefit is that sweet potatoes are versatile and flavorful. The amount of consumer generated recipes online attest to their versatility,” she said.
Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Burch Farms in Faison, N.C., said his company has the added benefit of growing and shipping kale — another item noted for its nutritional benefits.
“That’s that having the same phenomenon, and the volume is going up on both exponentially,” Burch said.
There’s only one way to keep the momentum going, whether it’s sweet potatoes or kale, Burch said.
“It just helps to keep talking about it,” he said.