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Taters in the Tar Heel State: An Analysis of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Market

Since the early 1970’s, North Carolina has been the leading grower of sweet potaNc State Flag  Sweet Potatotoes, producing over 50% of the nation’s crop. Our warm wet climate, as well as sandy soil, make North Carolina the perfect place to grow sweet potatoes. In fact, 96,000 acres of sweet potatoes were planted this year in the Tar Heel State. This is a 10% increase from 2015 and is 3 times more acreage than the next biggest producer, Mississippi. As production increases, so does the demand for sweet potatoes. Domestic consumption for sweet potatoes has almost doubled in the last decade. The USDA has reported that from 2000-2015 the average consumption of sweet potatoes has grown from 4.2 lbs to 7.5 lbs per capita. Experts believe that this growth in domestic consumption will continue to increase into 2016 and beyond. Demand has slightly outpaced producing, which has kept the price just under $25 per cwt. Even with the increase in acreage this year this trend will continue to hold true in 2016. There are three main factors that are driving the growth of sweet potatoes; the increased demand for locally grown produce, healthier meal options, and fresh/convenient options.     


The National Restaurant Association put together a survey to try and understand what consumers are looking for in 2016. 77% of survey participants pointed to locally grown produce as a hot trend in 2016. This is the highest percentage in the entire produce category, in front of organic produce. In today’s information-driven world, consumers have the ability to research any product. Now more than ever, consumers want to know where their products are coming from. This is especially true for regions generally known for specific commodities (North Carolina Sweet Potatoes). Consumers point to these advantages of locally grown produce;

  • Flavor- Locally grown crops are harvested at their peak of ripeness and often arrive to a restaurant 24 hours after picked.
  • Nutrition- When produce sits for long periods of time it tends to lose some of its nutrient value. Since local produce is closer to the consumer, the risk of nutrient loss is decreased.
  • Education - Often times, local farms can tell you exactly where their crops are grown. This helps produce a safer food supply for the public.
  • Economic- Buying local produce not only helps local farmers, it leads to an increase in the local economy.

Many people do not realize that Cuba, despite its economic hardships, has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. This is because they harp on prevention rather than treatment. One of their “prevention” methods is eating a healthy diet, free of processed foods. This “food is medicine” movement is beginning to shape what families around the world are putting on their plate. In fact, the global sale of health food products (including produce) is projected to grow to $1 trillion in 2017. Take into account the fact that a forbes.com poll found that 88% of people are willing to pay more for healthier fresh foods and you can see how the sweet potato is in for a historic year. The humble sweet potato excels as a healthy food option. The health benefits of sweet potatoes are unmatched and are rich in Flavanoids, Carotenoids, Vitamin E, and Lycopene.

  • Flavenoids- Have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, reducing the risk of heart disease especially atherosclerosis.
  • Carotenoids- Offer protection against certain cancers, macular degeneration, cataracts, and other free radical damaging conditions.
  • Vitamin E- Plays a strong role in developing a strong immunity as well as healthy skin and eyes.
  • Lycopene- Prevents heart disease and cancer, especially cancer of the prostate, breast, lung, bladder, ovaries, colon and pancreas.

This makes the sweet potato a perfect replacement to other popular sides like white potatoes. Combine this with the fact that sweet potatoes have 1,000 x more Vitamin A and more Vitamin C than regular white potatoes and you can see why more and more families are filling their plates with this healthy vegetable.
Two large trends of convenience and healthy food options have recently created a new consumer category of healthy convenient foods.

This category is driven by the emerging spending power of the millennial generation. Most millennials grew up in a world of on demand service/technology and tend to eat more impulsively than other generations. They also tend to eat out more, but still want healthier food options. This is where the versatility of the sweet potato excels. New packaging options such as individually wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes, microwaveable trays, and steamable bags have given the sweet potato the ability to be both healthy and convenient at the same time. China has already jumped on this trend, putting roasted pre packaged sweet potatoes in many of their countries gas stations.
In the past decade, the health benefits and versatility of the sweet potato have increased the demand for the vegetable as well as allowed it to follow global food trends. So what’s next for the sweet potato? Experts believe the demand for sweet potatoes will continue to grow beyond 2016. Consumers will continue to demand healthier and more convenient options of their favorite foods, fueling innovation in the processing as well as packaging side of the business.

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