Ever since Americans discovered the health perks of eating sweet potatoes, the root vegetable's popularity has skyrocketed. From 2000 to 2014, consumption increased by 80 percent, with the average American eating around seven-and-a-half pounds of sweet potato a year. But there was once a time in American history when sweet potatoes were grown and consumed at equally high rates.
WWII and the Rise of the Sweet Potato
According to NPR's The Salt, Americans opted to harvest sweet potatoes during World War II since they were cheap and easy to grow. And since sugar and cash were both limited commodities, the affordable sweet potato served as a viable alternative. In fact, by the end of the war, farmers were growing more than 3 billion pounds of sweet potatoes — an amount the country only recently surpassed in 2015 with the production of 3.1 billion pounds of the tuberous vegetable.
After the war was over, purchasing russet potatoes was cheaper than growing sweet potatoes. This, coupled with the fact that more people were opting to purchase their produce rather than grow it, led to a steep decline in production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American production of the sweet-tasting spud was less than a billion pounds in 1980.
Why Are Sweet Potatoes So Popular Right Now?
The Salt credits fad diets (like South Beach, Paleo, and Atkins) for giving the vegetable its "superfood" status. The vegetable contains high levels of beta carotene, and is a rich source of potassium, fiber, and vitamins A and C. The health hype was further enhanced by global demand for the vegetable — especially in parts of Europe where it is too cold to grow them.
Get a recipe: 20 Recipes to Help You Eat Sweet Potatoes All Day Long
Now sweet potatoes are a staple in American diets year-round instead of being limited to Thanksgiving. The state of North Carolina has been the largest producer of sweet potatoes since 1971, growing more than half of the nation's total output. Diners can readily find sweet potato dishes as an alternative for traditional potato in most eateries.
Read more: Why America Is Growing The Most Sweet Potatoes Since WWII from NPR's The Salt
What's your favorite way to eat sweet potatoes? Please share in the comments!