Thanksgiving is coming — turkey and all the trimmings, yum. And one of those trimmings is traditionally sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are one of the oldest vegetables grown by mankind, first domesticated in Central America over 5,000 years ago. Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes. They liked them and brought them back to Europe. From there they spread through Asia and Africa.
Sweet potatoes are not related to white potatoes, although they both originated in Central and South America and have a similar history. They are in the morning glory family and potatoes are in nightshade family along with tomatoes. Sweet potatoes are botanically roots and potatoes are tubers: a stem structure.
Also, sweet potatoes are not the same as yams, even though some use the names interchangeably. Yams are in a separate yam family and originated in Africa and Asia. They are generally larger, dryer, starchier and white-fleshed. Nutritionally, sweet potatoes rank the high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins A and C and low in fat.
An interesting historical footnote about sweet potatoes — George Washington Carver, who was born a slave, became the director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from the 1890s to the 1920s. He is best known for his work with peanuts and sweet potatoes. He recognized the value of sweet potatoes and did extensive work, inventing over 100 new uses for them, from dyes to synthetic rubber, in addition to their food value.
Cotton, the main crop of the South at that time, was very detrimental to the soil. Carver promoted rotating cotton with sweet potatoes, peanuts and other legumes to improve the soil and diversify farming. He was well ahead of his time.
The U.S. ranks 10th in sweet potato production worldwide (3.1 billion pounds). China is first with three African countries and Vietnam all ranking ahead of America. Alabama is the top producing state. Farms can produce up to 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes per acre, compared to 4,000 pounds for white potatoes.
Sweet potato consumption in the U.S. has grown from an average of 4.2 per person in 2000 to 7.6 in 2015. This increase has been fueled by the growing food trend for more healthful, colorful and unique foods and by the industry’s promotion of sweet potato fries, chips and other convenience foods.
Compare this with the Americans’ annual consumption of 117 pounds of white potatoes, mostly as oil and salt-soaked potato chips and french fries.
So, eat more sweet potatoes. They are not just for Thanksgiving anymore.
Ed Perkins grows sweet potatoes on his Athens County farm.