U.S. sweet potatoes target greater U.K. consumption via health and usage campaign

April 26 , 2019

From the pages of Produce Business UK

The American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute (ASPMI) is working proactively to expand the UK market on the back of developing a year-round offer that is both versatile and nutritious. After launching a campaign focusing on broadening usage occasions and highlighting nutrition, PBUK provides the full picture with regards to the UK objective. 

Over the past decade, UK demand for US-grown sweet potatoes has quadrupled, according to Kantar Worldpanel. Current total sales are worth £94 million annually, with the majority supplied from the US.

Sue Johnson-Langdon, marketing consultant for ASPMI, says sweet potatoes have graduated from a specialty item to a mainstream product, registering a growth in popularity not only in the UK but across Europe.

While historically consumption has been mainly in the winter months and in rather simple ways, this is rapidly changing with the onset of 12-month supplies and ASPMI’s efforts to broaden usage occasions.

Global exports are growing steadily from the US, and production is expanding as a result, meaning supply is planned to keep pace with demand. At present, that ranges from 115,000 acres to 120,000 acres nationwide, according to ASPMI. 

But US Ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, sees his nation’s progress as only the tip of the iceberg. 

“With all the advantages that the sweet potato has, there is clearly a lot of potential for sales to grow if American producers can get out there and educate consumers about all the benefits,” he noted at the launch of International Sweet Potato Week 2019 (ISPW) at New Covent Garden Market in London on 28 March.

Indeed, although UK household penetration is at 45%, annual sweet potato sales only make up 5% of the total potato market in the UK, according to Kantar Worldpanel L52 w/e 30 December 2018. 

“When you consider that per capita consumption is low in the UK, I see no way to go but higher,” Johnson-Langdon suggests. “American sweet potatoes with all of their benefits and availability have a major role to play in the health and wellbeing of the UK.” 

Importantly, Johnson-Langdon says US growers have invested heavily to offer buyers year-round availability with consistent quality.

“US growers have integrated the latest technologies available to create a controlled environment (of temperature and humidity) to cure and store sweet potatoes,” she explains. “They have the ability to monitor conditions within storage facilities, and to make automatic adjustments.

“This means stored product is just as fresh as when it was first harvested. The monitoring of the curing process also ensures the quality is consistent.”

Added to that, new varieties are coming on stream that will satisfy the UK’s appreciation for the multitude of global cuisines.

“The white-fleshed sweet potato is a variety that is drier and more suited to oriental cuisines and probably Middle Eastern dishes too,” Johnson-Langdon notes. “The purple sweet potato is really popular in Japan. In addition to its bright colour, it contains lots of antioxidants.” 

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UK campaign

Their bright colours mean all sweet potatoes contain different health properties. The traditional orange sweet potato alone is packed with betacarotene or Vitamin A, in addition to Vitamin E and fibre, as well as being low in fat. 

Johnson-Langdon describes the root vegetable as a “powerhouse of nutrition”. 

“One of the things that makes sweet potatoes unique is that they don’t metabolise quickly in the body. They don’t give you a sugar rush, like white potatoes or bread, rather they maintain this level. For this reason, lots of body builders are concentrating on sweet potatoes.”

Sweet potatoes are also highly versatile in cooking, and can be included in various meals from starters through to desserts.

“Right now, sweet potato toast is popular in the US,” reveals Johnson-Langdon. “It’s a slice of sweet potato done several times in the toaster that becomes the bed for whatever breakfast topping you like. It goes great with avocados, down to bacon. There are loads of recipes!”

Versatility and nutrition are precisely the attributes that ASPMI is promoting to consumers via its UK campaign this year, which kicked off with International Sweet Potato Week 2019 (ISPW).

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By encouraging creativity in the kitchen, the initiative is designed to make people to think differently about sweet potatoes, and to incorporate more of them into their every day cooking.

“62% of British consumers already understand the health benefits of sweet potatoes but this campaign will be really important in sharing the news with more people,” commented Ambassador Johnson, quoting the AHDB You Gov Tracker from August 2018.

ASPMI has worked with five top foodie influencers to create a series of recipes which it has been promoting through national UK media and social media. The recipes cover everything from cupcakes to curry, overnight oats and sweet potato toast. 

ASPMI says the recipes have gone down a storm; garnering much attention in the national press, as well as women’s magazines, demonstrating the appetite for innovative sweet potato dishes.

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2019 supply

Despite two hurricanes which last autumn hit North Carolina – the largest sweet potato-producing state in the US – ASPMI says the quality of this year’s crop is good, although volume has come under some pressure. 

“There is a tightness of supply right now, and that will continue until the fall [autumn],” explains Johnson-Langdon. “The hurricanes mainly delayed harvesting but not all fields were affected.

“Also, it slowed down the growth of the product because the hurricanes came at the end of production when the crop was undergoing a growth spurt, which is why sizes maybe a little smaller. But once the fields were harvested, the quality was good.”

As for next season’s crop, Johnson-Langdon says the signs are good.“We will be planting after the frosts have passed, and that will begin probably in May,” she says.

“Harvesting will start in early September until the first frost in the early part of November. The weather is good at the moment. Because of the vagaries of the weather we don’t know what the fall will bring, but we anticipate it will be good.”

US sweet potatoes are grown predominately in North Carolina, California, Mississippi and Louisiana. The Southeastern states largely supply the UK due to their greater proximity.

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