( Photos courtesy Nash Produce )

Demand for the traditional orange-fleshed sweet potato during holiday dinners may be a constant, but disruption is creeping into this category.

It’s not necessarily organic that’s leading the charge, but the purple murasaki sweet potato that’s powering through, as well as alternative recipes and uses for the classic orange covington beta carotene powerhouse — at different times of year and times of day.

“We’re all over the menu,” said Kay Rentzel, communications and marketing program consultant for American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute. 

“We can be breakfast, snack, lunch, dinner, dessert — you name it. The sweet potato can have a role in any segment of our diets we put them into.”

Very few participants in The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2020 consumer survey purchased organic sweet potatoes compared to conventional counterparts, in any income level or geographic region — but shoppers 18-39 years old did buy almost three times more organic sweet potatoes than the next highest age group, ages 50-58.

Organic or not, this vegetable is more popular than ever, at least partly due to its healthy reputation, said Jordan Barta, a sales manager also in charge of potato grower relations at Los Angeles-based Progressive Produce.

“Everybody is hopping on the sweet potato train,” Barta said.

Barta and Oscar Guzman, Progressive sales and marketing director, say they’re seeing bigger demand for more options and varieties, particularly the murasaki, in the past year.

“It’s definitely becoming more mainstream, and we think that trend will continue. A lot of people think that these lesser known varieties eat better,” Barta said.

Bruce Sweet Potato, a grower, shipper and wholesaler in Bruce, Miss., grows what the customer asks for, and that’s mostly the orange varieties, said partner Marshall Bailey.

“We do a little bit with the purple murasaki variety, but it seems to be more of a northern thing. It’s not a growing segment for us particularly,” Bailey said.

When it comes to sweet potatoes in general, the Midwest loves them the most with a 30% purchase rate, followed by the South, the Northeast and the West, according to Fresh Trends 2020. The highest income households, as well as female shoppers, buy the most sweet potatoes, a trend seen across most fresh produce.

Though specialty varieties are seeing more interest at the moment, marketers don’t feel the need to change consumer perception any time soon that the orange-fleshed varieties are the standard, good sweet potato, said Rebecca Scott, grower accounting and marketing director of Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce

“But many retail and foodservice locations are tapping into the availability of unique specialty varieties such as the (white-fleshed) bonita and (purple-skinned) murasaki,” Scott said.

The majority of consumers still go for the covington sweet potato and other standby orange varieties, agreed Kelly McIver, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission

Yet, “we are seeing a little more demand for other varieties for certain niche markets,” McIver said.

Consumers want different sizes of sweet potatoes too, she said.

Matthews Ridgeview Farms, Wynne, Ark., hasn’t experienced any changes in demand for other varieties, said Autumn Campbell, sales manager, but it has answered the call for petite steamers, a value-added convenience product using smaller sweet potatoes.

Besides more offerings of product variety and size, there’s a push for extending the eating seasons. 

Rentzel, also executive director of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, said the collaborative marketing goal for the category is to think beyond the traditional push during Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For instance, who thinks of sweet potatoes in cold recipes during the summer?

Consumers may have that use in mind if the institute and its sweet potato growers and marketers have their way.

To broaden the reach of the root tuber, the institute recently featured a sweet potato frozen yogurt smoothie, offering samples for its July promotion week during the months-long U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market.

People tasted the samples, saying, “’Ooh, I didn’t think it would be good this way, and it is.’ That’s what we want to happen on a broader scale,” Rentzel said. 

“We wanted to do it when not everybody is thinking about it. It’s going to take time to develop those markets, for sure.”
Progress is already being made.

According to a 2020 survey from C+R Research, 56% of shoppers say that they want to be able to use a sweet potato in both sweet and savory dishes. 

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