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The hip, orange super food displacing French fries

From health food to chili fries, sweet potatoes have made a comeback, with demand in the US and from Europe fueling its rise

By Megan Durisin  /  Bloomberg

US first lady Michelle Obama holds a sweet potato alongside local area students during the annual fall harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Oct. 6 last year.

Photo: AFP

The once lowly sweet potato is being reborn as a kind of hip, orange super food.

Gone are the days when the only time Americans encountered the tuber was mashed up and topped with marshmallows alongside a Thanksgiving turkey. Today, sweet potatoes turn up everywhere, as healthier, nutrient-dense alternatives to French fries at burger joints or colorful side dishes for swanky restaurants. They have more fiber and fewer calories than white potatoes.

The appeal is not just among Americans, who are eating twice as many sweet potatoes as they did in 2005. Demand also is surging in Europe. In the US, the world’s biggest exporter, farmers are planting their biggest crop in five decades after their shipments overseas doubled in five years to an all-time high. Nutritionists say consumers who want to eat fewer grains and processed foods are choosing sweet potatoes.

“We’ve seen various different plants emerge as new superstars,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. “From a diet perspective, people are so interested in really eating much closer to the farm. Sweet potatoes could be clumped in with beets and kale and some of these other things that are coming from the ground and not coming from a plant where people are wearing hairnets.”

While Americans still eat far more white potatoes — as French fries or just baked or mashed — demand has slowed. Consumption was 51.6kg per person last year, down from 56.9kg a decade ago, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates.

Meanwhile, sweet potatoes are catching on and growers are marketing them as a year-round staple. Last year, consumers ate 3.4kg, up from 2kg in 2005, USDA data show.

BACK IN FAVOR

Sweet potatoes, which belong to a different plant family than white potatoes and yams, were already well-established as a root vegetable in Central and South America by the time explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the late 1400s. They were a big part of the US diet almost a century ago, peaking in the 1930s, before falling out of favor over the next six decades. With demand and output now rebounding, the crop is marketed in everything from dog food to vodka.

“They’ve been phenomenally popular” at DMK Burger Bar in Chicago, where sweet-potato fries served with a lemon-Tabasco aioli have been on the menu since the first restaurant opened in the Lakeview neighborhood in 2009, said David Morton, cofounder of DMK Restaurants, which operates three of the burger joints in the Chicago area, as well as locations in Soldier Field. “They have a very, very loyal following.”

Most of the US crop is grown in the southeast, where land has traditionally been used for tobacco and cotton. More than half comes from North Carolina. Total domestic output last year jumped 4.8 percent to 14.1 billion kilograms, the highest since 1946, USDA data show.

Seedings this year are forecast at the highest since 1965, the USDA said, providing a profit boost to farmers at a time when global surpluses of grain and oilseeds have led to lower prices and losses on those crops. A farmer can generate US$1,200 to US$1,400 of operating income per acre (0.4 hectare) growing sweet potatoes, up from US$827 in 2012, according to an analysis by Elizabeth Canales, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University. By comparison, US farm income is falling for many crops, and some Midwest corn growers may barely break even.

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