How sweet it is

by Eric Schroeder
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With the Thanksgiving holiday just past, many people may have taken the opportunity to indulge in sweet potato pie or sweet potato casserole, both popular holiday dishes. President Barack Obama has even gone on record as saying sweet potato pie is his favorite dessert. According to Mintel International Group, Chicago, consumers may no longer need to wait another 12 months for the sweet flavor to touch their taste buds.

Sweet potato is one of six flavors expected to gain favor in the U.S. marketplace during 2010, according to Mintel International’s Flavor, Ingredient and Scent Trends 2010 report.

“As the economy recovers, we expect people to continue the trend of eating at home,” said Lynn Dornblaser, new products expert at Mintel. “The home cook is becoming more advanced with his or her cooking skills by trying new spices and flavors, as well as preparing everyday items in new ways.”

In the case of sweet potatoes, Mintel said the vegetable will draw interest as a functional food because of its dietary fiber, beta carotene and vitamins C and B6. It’s also full of manganese, copper, potassium and iron, and is free of fat and cholesterol and is low in sodium. Health benefits aside, what may determine whether the sweet potato flavor sticks, though, is taste. A number of new products featuring the

flavor have been introduced over the past year, some to positive reviews praising the rich flavor that the sweet potatoes bring out; on the flip side, a few reviews have not been so fond of the sweetness.

Jones Soda Co., Seattle, perhaps was ahead of the game when it offered a sweet potato flavored beverage as part of a holiday-themed drink package in 2006. The product — which was viewed as a limited-time item when it was launched — has since been phased out, but Adagio Teas, Clifton, N.J., hopes to return the taste to beverages with the addition last month of sweet potato pie to its tea flavor lineup. Initial reviews of the Adagio product on the company’s web site have been mixed, with responses ranging from “too strong” of a flavor to “an interesting tea … very savory.”

For the most part, though, sweet potato is gaining favor in the broader food category. Procter & Gamble Co., Cincinnati, has offered a Cinnamon Sweet Potato variety in its Pringles Select line for the past year. The product is described by the company as “Fragrant cinnamon meets sugary sweet potato to create the ultimate gourmet indulgence.”

The flavor also began appearing earlier this year in ice cream produced by Kleinpeter Farms Dairy, L.L.C., Baton Rouge, La. The sweet potato pie flavor is made with yams from Bruce Foods of Iberia and was developed in part due to Kleinpeter’s desire to experiment with flavors that embrace Louisiana recipes and ingredients.

Another company looking to combine sweet potato with culture is Los Angeles-based Crave Foods, which in late September launched Crave Samosas in a cinnamon sweet potato flavor. Samosas are similar to an Indian egg roll and the flavor is made up of a sweet potatoes, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg filling inside of an organic whole wheat flour dough.

The flavor also is making waves in the restaurant industry. White Castle, Columbus, Ohio, in November reintroduced its limited-time-only Sweet Potato Fries. The fries, which are served like regular fries and are accompanied by a cinnamon dipping sauce, debuted in 2008. The fries will be available through Dec. 26.

Sweet potato fries are on the menu year-round at From Soul to Sicily, a cafe in Neptune City, N.J. But it doesn’t stop there, with a menu that includes sweet potato cheese cake, sweet potato bread pudding, sweet potato pie, and even sweet potato pancakes and waffles.

To accommodate the trend, some companies are going so far as to add capacity. ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston, Omaha, in August detailed plans to build a new environmentally friendly sweet-potato processing plant near Delhi, La. The plant is scheduled to open in November 2010.

Adding to the idea that the flavor may be more than a passing trend, ConAgra’s chief executive officer, Gary Rodkin, said potatoes, including sweet potatoes, will be a “a strategic priority for ConAgra Foods, and we are committed to expansion in this area.”

If the sweet potato flavor becomes more popular in the United States, food companies may want to cast an eye to the global market for guidance. In Japan, where sweet potato production is near 1 million tonnes (the United States, by comparison, produces about 837,000 tonnes), the flavor has garnered particular interest, appearing in numerous cookies and candies. Most recently, Nestle S.A., debuted Kit Kat Daigakuimo, a candy bar in white chocolate with a hint of sweet potato.

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