Thanksgiving is coming – turkey and all the decorations, yum. And one of these decorations is traditional sweet potato.
Sweet potato is one of the oldest vegetables grown by humans, first domesticated in Central America more than 5,000 years ago. Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes. They like them and bring them back to Europe. From there they spread throughout Asia and Africa.
Sweet potatoes are not related to white potatoes, even though they are from Central and South America and have a similar history. They were in the morning glory family and potatoes were in the nightshade family along with tomatoes. Sweet potatoes are botanical roots and potatoes are tubers: stem structure.
In addition, sweet potatoes are not the same as sweet potatoes, although some use names alternately. Sweet potatoes are in separate yam families and come from Africa and Asia. They are generally larger, dryer, starchier and white-fleshed. Nutrition, sweet potatoes rank high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins A and C, and low fat.
An interesting historical footnote about sweet potatoes – George Washington Carver, who was born a slave, became director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from the 1890s to the 1920s. He is famous for his work with peanuts and sweet potatoes. He recognizes the value of sweet potatoes and does extensive work, creating more than 100 new uses for them, ranging from dyes to synthetic rubber, in addition to their food value.
Cotton, the main South plant at that time, was very detrimental to the soil. Carver promotes spinning cotton with sweet potatoes, peanuts and other legumes to improve soil and diversify agriculture. He is far ahead of time.
The US ranks 10th in sweet potato production worldwide (3.1 billion pounds). China is the first with three African countries and Vietnam all ranked above America. Alabama is a top producing country. Farms can produce up to 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes per hectare, compared to 4,000 pounds for white potatoes.
Sweet potato consumption in the US has grown from an average of 4.2 per person in 2000 to 7.6 in 2015. This increase is driven by growing food trends for healthier, colorful and unique foods and by industry promotion French fries, chips and other comfort foods.
Compare this with America's annual consumption of 117 pounds of white potatoes, mostly as potato chips moistened with oil and salt and french fries.
So, eat more sweet potatoes. They are not just for Thanksgiving anymore.
Ed Perkins planted sweet potatoes on his farm in Athens County.