It’s Sweet Potato Season: North Carolina’s Homegrown Superfood

It’s Sweet Potato Season: North Carolina’s Homegrown Superfood

If you’re a recent transplant, you might not yet know about North Carolina and sweet potatoes.  Well, get ready.  We are coming full-on into sweet potato season, and North Carolina has a sweet spot for this orange superfood. In fact, the state legislature made it official in 1995. They designated the sweet potato as the North Carolina state vegetable.

And just so you know, sweet potatoes most definitely are NOT yams. True yams are more starchy, more fibrous — and yams aren’t commonly found in U.S. stores.

But here’s the funny thing: sweet potatoes aren’t potatoes either. They are from a different family of plants altogether. In fact, sweet potatoes are related to morning glories (a flowering plant complete with vines).

Sweet Potatoes Give Big Business to North Carolina

Globally, demand for American sweet potatoes has been increasing. Sweet potatoes are one of the fastest-growing agriculture exports in the U.S. Since 1971, North Carolina has ranked as the number-one sweet potato-producing state in the U.S. That is an incredible 49-year run!

It also means sweet potatoes are big business for North Carolina. Annually, the state harvests more sweet potatoes than the next three states combined (California, Louisiana and Mississippi). In 2018, North Carolina accounted for 70% of U.S. sweet potato shipments.

Fun fact — four North Carolina counties (Sampson, Johnston, Wilson, and Nash) contribute about half of the state’s annual fall sweet potato harvest.  

Why Do Sweet Potatoes Grow So Well in North Carolina?

Sweet potatoes are nothing new to North Carolina. Native Americans grew them long before the European colonists arrived. The sandy soils and temperate climate of North Carolina’s eastern coastal plain are ideal for cultivating these nutritious tubers.

Sweet potatoes are a tropical, long-season vegetable. They grow best in locations with long, hot summers and at least 150 frost-free days. We have both.

All that goodness makes an irresistible orange superfood.

Sweet potatoes are increasingly a go-to food for restaurants, food shows and health-focused magazines. There are hundreds of varieties, with a range of colors, sweetness and textures. The Beauregard, the Jewel and the Garnet are common in grocery stores nationwide.

North Carolina named the sweet potato as its official food in 1995.
Image courtesy of Beverly Buckley from Pixabay.

Why all the interest? Despite their name, sweet potatoes are naturally low in calories and fat, while high in fiber. They have more beta carotene (which provides us with Vitamin A) than many other vegetables. They also provide a good source of potassium and manganese. Sweet potatoes have essential vitamins, including C, B-6 and A, which is an important contributor to eye, skin and immune system health.

Finally, because sweet potatoes have a low glycemic index, they are a good source of nutrients for diabetics. And all that goodness makes NC’s largest vegetable crop an orange superfood.

Sweet potatoes: A Southern Cook’s Mainstay

Sweet potatoes give a colorful addition to any table. They can be baked, roasted, boiled, fried, grilled, mashed, or pureed.

The sweet potato is a special food to people in North Carolina.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes. Image courtesy of Анастасия Белоусова from Pixabay.

Sweet potatoes are a must-have at many Thanksgiving celebrations. But their mild flavor and moist texture works well in a surprising range of recipes, whether warm and savory to sweet and spicy.

Tip: Cook sweet potatoes in their skin to retain the most nutrients (you can peel them after cooking).

It’s peak season for North Carolina sweet potatoes — stop by your farmer’s market to find some!

Our state has already begun harvesting sweet potatoes, and so don’t forget to pick up some of that North Carolina grown orange superfood. Your body will thank you. They’re available now at farmer’s markets across North Carolina!

Sweet potatoes can be stored for several weeks in cool, dry conditions away from light. Just don’t store them in the refrigerator — they won’t last long in the cold or where it’s too moist.

Don’t forget to catch up with our other NC lifestyle tips!

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