Sweet sensations

Sweetpotato or sweet potato?

By Craig Levitt

It may seem like an insignificant difference, but for the growers and shippers of the vegetable it was important enough to petition to make sweet potato one word. Reason being, says George Wooten, president of the Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., based in Chadbourn, N.C., is to help create a separation in consumers’ minds between traditional potatoes and sweet potatoes.

“Often, when you look at a recipe it will say potato (red) or potato (sweet),” says Wooten. “We in North Carolina pushed for years to get sweet potato to be spelled one word, like blueberry or strawberry. Unfortunately we lost that cause.”

That seems to have been one of the few setbacks the sweet potato industry has had over the past couple of years. According to industry observers, with double-digit sales growth the last three years the category is growing in both consumption and offerings. Wooten calls it an “awakening of the U.S. population” and attributes it to a number of factors, including the abundance of sweet potatoes on television cooking shows, as well as in consumer magazines and newspapers.  Others say the boon first began with the proliferation of sweet potato fries and took off from there. Either way sweet potatoes are more popular with consumers today then any time over the last two decades.

“If you go back 20 years, sweet potatoes were only offered one way in grocery stores, bulk U.S. No. 1 potatoes,” says Wooten. “A No. 1 spec is very wide-ranged. As we have moved forward the sizing has gotten more consistent.”

The product offerings have advanced as well. Now there are individually wrapped items, microwavable items, 3- and 5- pound bags as well as sweet potato fingerlings in both bags and trays. One of the newer products from Wayne E. Bailey is the 1.5-pound steamable bag which contains four to six sweet potatoes which Wooten says microwaves for about eight minutes.

The Wada Farms Marketing Group, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, also offers a 1-pound steamable sweet potato bag, which was reduced from 1.5-pounds. Shane Watt, director of sweet potatoes for Wada Farms says in addition to the reduction in size the packaging was changed so consumers better understood that the sweet potatoes could be microwaved without having to open the bag. Wada Farms has also had great success with its 3-pound bags as Watt says that business has enjoyed an increase of about 200%.

Wada Farms, which supplies Dole with its sweet potatoes, is also working on a way to identify the Dole label on individual product. “The [Dole sweet potatoes] are put in bulk bins right now so it is pretty hard to distinguish whose sweet potatoes are whose,” says Watt. “We are working on a way, similar to bananas, where the product will have a sticker on it. So the sweet potato will have POS, it will be scannable and consumers can distinguish that ‘this is a Dole product versus something else.’”

Historically the sweet potato has been primarily a Thanksgiving or Christmas item, used for sweet potato pies, casseroles and the like. However as they become more mainstream consumers are clamoring for new and exciting ways to prepare them, making recipes great promotional tools. Extolling the health virtues are can also go a long way towards generating sweet potato sales.

“It’s an ongoing process,” says Watt. “Sweet potatoes have beta carotene, they are high in vitamin C, all of its nutrients are helping push it.”

In fact, the U.S. Sweet Potato Council is working to get approval from the American Heart Association to put the heart-check mark on sweet potato packaging. Observers say the use of the heart-check mark would not only go a long way towards educating consumers but might also help in educating retailers as well. And there seems to be a need to educate some retailers on more than just health benefits. For example, sweet potatoes shouldn’t be stored below 55 degrees. However Wooten says he often finds sweet potatoes stored in the cooler.

“That doesn’t help the general appearance of a sweet potato and if you keep them in there too long it may also distort the taste of them,” says Wooten.

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