The Sweet Potato: A Popular & Versatile Vegetable

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Photo courtesy of the Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival/Facebook

Sweet potatoes are one of the most essential food crops in the world, especially here in Mississippi. But how much do you know about them? Here are some interesting tidbits and some fun facts about this versatile root vegetable that you’ll probably be including in your Thanksgiving feast.

When are they in season?

They are generally harvested in September and October, but it can take up to eight weeks after harvest before they sweeten and are ready for consumption. They are available year-round but are at their peak during the winter.

Are there different kinds of sweet potatoes? 

Yes. They come in a rainbow of colors, as well as various shapes and sizes. Their skin can be russet, tan, cream, light purple, or red. The most common color is the russet. The flesh of the sweet potato is just as colorful with the most common color being orange.  There are two main types of sweet potatoes – one, with a thin, light yellow skin and pale yellow flesh, which is not sweet and has a dry, crumbly texture, and two, a thicker, dark orange to reddish skin (which is the most common) with a sweet, vivid orange flesh and a moist texture.

Where did sweet potatoes originate and where do they grow?

Sweet potatoes date back more than 10,000 years and are thought to have originated in Central or South America, although archaeologists have found remnants of them in Polynesia dating back to the year 1000 or 1100. Explorer Christopher Columbus discovered them during his voyage to the New World in 1492 and brought them back to Spain. The Spaniards loved them so much that they took them with them on future voyages, spreading them to China in the 16th century and throughout South America, Africa, and Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries. The earliest records of American settlers cultivating them were in Virginia in 1648 and in New England in 1764. Most sweet potatoes come from China, followed by Uganda, Nigeria, and Indonesia. In the US, over 50 percent of them are grown in North Carolina, followed by California, Mississippi, and Louisiana (Fun fact: Vardaman, Mississippi is considered “The Sweet Potato Capital of the World”).

How to select and store sweet potatoes?

Choose sweet potatoes that are firm with intact skin and no large dents or blemishes. They can be stored for up to four weeks in a cool, dry place away from light. Do not store them in the refrigerator as that will accelerate their decline. Also, if they get too warm, they’ll sprout and become shriveled and mushy.

Cooking with sweet potatoes

They can be used in both savory and sweet dishes in just about any part of a meal, from a side dish to the main course to dessert. They can be baked, roasted, boiled, fried, grilled, mashed, or puréed (Sound like Forrest Gump?). They are commonly paired with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and other warming spices, along with brown sugar or maple syrup. They are delicious paired with apples and oranges (juice or zest). When mashed or puréed, they can be added to baked goods like muffins, biscuits, pies, and cakes. It’s recommended that when cooking them to cook them in their skin to retain the most nutrients. You can always peel them after cooking. Once cooked, they can be kept in the refrigerator for five to seven days or in the freezer for six to nine months.

How nutritious are they?

Sweet potatoes are good for you, especially the varieties with orange or purple flesh. They contain between 500 and 700 percent of your recommended daily intake of Vitamin A in just one cup of potatoes. They also contain fiber, excellent amounts of Vitamins C and B-6, manganese, potassium, and several other vitamins and minerals. They are also a good source of iron and calcium.

Fun Facts about Sweet Potatoes:

1. They are medicinal

They contain Vitamin A (beta-carotene) which provides protection against certain intestinal parasites. They are even thought to be helpful in blood sugar regulation. Potatoes with dark orange flesh also contain lycopene which is a powerful antioxidant with many health benefits, including sun protection, improved heart health, and a lower risk of certain types of cancer.

2. They are used in numerous non-food products:

Through the research of George Washington Carver (of peanut fame), sweet potatoes have even been used in over 100 different products such as glue, dye, medicine, writing ink, among others.

Sweet potato statistics:

  • Between 90 to 100 million metric tons of sweet potatoes are produced globally every year, most of which come from developing countries
  • According to the International Potato Center, sweet potatoes are the sixth most essential food crop, after cassava (often called yuca or Brazilian arrowroot), corn, potatoes, wheat, and rice. It moves up to the fifth spot in developing countries because of its nutritional, carb-rich composition.
  • Despite its origin in Latin America, Asia has become the prime source of sweet potatoes, producing over 90 million tons each year. China is the biggest producer and consumer of them, using them as a staple food, animal feed, or to create other products such as flour and starch.

Mississippi and Sweet Potato Fame

As aforementioned, Vardaman, located in Calhoun County in north Mississippi, is known as “The Sweet Potato Capital of Mississippi.” Vardaman also hosts an annual Sweet Potato Festival the first week of November, complete with tasting booths, cook-offs, pie-eating contests, and competitions starring sweet potatoes, as well as crowing a sweet potato king and queen.

A Holiday Staple

Sweet potatoes became a staple at Thanksgiving in the late 1880s, and have remained as such ever since. Dishes such as sweet potato pies and mashed sweet potatoes are almost always present at holiday celebrations. And then there’s the beloved sweet potato casserole with the marshmallows on top. However, this is one of the most divisive recipes as people either love it or hate it. Those who don’t like it often top the casserole with pecans, which as to no surprise, originated in the South. Purists go totally without any topping. The consensus is that the marshmallow-topped casserole is the most popular version. But do you know how this dish came about? It originated in 1917 when a marshmallow company, Angelus Marshmallows, was looking for a way to boost sales of their marshmallows. They hired the founder of the Boston Cooking School Magazine to develop recipes using the marshmallow as an everyday ingredient. Thus, the sweet concoction of the sweet potatoes and marshmallows was created.

And one last thing,

What is the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

Although the roots of both can be similar in shape, sweet potatoes and yams are not interchangeable and are not the same vegetable.

The true sweet potato is a vine related to the morning glory and is native to South America. They are almost always sweeter than yams and have versatile flavors easily altered by cooking and preparation methods. They are very nutritious and have more sugar, protein, calcium, iron, sodium, Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and water than yams.

The true yam is native to Africa and Asia and is a member of the lily family. They have a drier texture, are starchier in taste, and are usually not very sweet. They are also very nutritious and have more protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin E, but less beta-carotene than sweet potatoes. They can be rather tough to find in the US as they are imported and rarely found in local grocery stores. They are mostly found in international or ethnic food stores.

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Written by Mimi Bosarge

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