Purple Sweet Potatoes: The Ancient Superfood

These richly colored tubers shouldn’t be underestimated. Learn about their growing reputation, health benefits, and global history.

| Spring 2018

  •  'Okinawan' sweet potatoes
    While 'Okinawan' sweet potatoes can be used in various dishes, powdered ‘Okinawan’ is often used in Japanese sweets and baked confections.
    Photo by Getty Images/Creativeye99
  •  purple sweet potato fries
    Instead of common orange sweet potato fries, try purple sweet potato fries for an additional gourmet touch.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Rickegrant
  • sweet potato mash
    Try experimenting with purple sweet potatoes in everyday recipes. When considering recipes for purple sweet potatoes, be sure to take moisture content into account. Some recipes, such as the sweet potato mash above, may require added fats.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Dashu83
  • purple sweet potato chips.
    Indulge in chip cravings without guilt by choosing purple sweet potato chips.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/DIA
  •  purple sweet potato pie,
    'Stokes Purple' can be used as an alternative filling for sweet potato pie, which is often served during holidays.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Dashu83
  • North Carolina grows about 60 percent of the sweet potatoes
    North Carolina grows about 60 percent of the sweet potatoes consumed in the U.S., primarily the deep-orange-fleshed cultivar called ‘Beauregard’.
    Photo by Getty Images/Egal
  • ‘Stokes Purple’ sweet potatoes
    Even after they’ve been baked, ‘Stokes Purple’ sweet potatoes retain their vibrant color.
    Photo by Getty Images/Jonathan Austin Daniels
  •  ‘Stokes Purple’ Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Trader Joe’s.
    Stores that currently carry ‘Stokes Purple’ include select Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Trader Joe’s.
    Photo by Getty Images/Chengyuzheng

  •  'Okinawan' sweet potatoes
  •  purple sweet potato fries
  • sweet potato mash
  • purple sweet potato chips.
  •  purple sweet potato pie,
  • North Carolina grows about 60 percent of the sweet potatoes
  • ‘Stokes Purple’ sweet potatoes
  •  ‘Stokes Purple’ Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Trader Joe’s.

“It’s definitely not your typical sweet potato,” says Mary Landis, recounting an episode in which her microwave nearly erupted in flames. She’s a former “forager” for Frieda’s, a specialty produce company based in California that introduces unusual fruits and vegetables to American tables, including kiwi and dragon fruit. Companies like Frieda’s that specialize in exotic produce make it their priority to supply community supermarkets that would otherwise go without access to unique produce items.

These businesses have helped spark the appearance of more recent and now-familiar items, such as persimmons, rambutan, and cucamelon. Fruits aren’t the only products that have gained in popularity, though — specialty vegetables have also been attracting attention, particularly an unusual variety of sweet potato. Unbeknownst to some consumers, sweet potatoes come in a variety of colors besides the traditional orange, including red, yellow, and white. Perhaps most striking is the purple sweet potato, offering unrivaled health benefits and rich color.

In 2010, a sweet potato supplier of Frieda’s, A.V. Thomas Produce, told Landis they’d planted a trial of a North Carolina sweet potato that had rich, nearly black-purple skin and flesh that turned brilliant violet in the oven. “It’s a gorgeous sweet potato,” says Landis. “And the antioxidants don’t cook out. Usually when you cook a vegetable with dark coloring, the color is lost. A purple bell pepper turns brown when you cook it, and a purple cauliflower doesn’t keep its color in the pot.” Jeremy Fookes, retail sales specialist for A.V. Thomas, says this sweet potato’s color retention post-cooking was “what we thought was quite special. It’s not lavender-y, but purple-purple.”

Gaining Recognition



Purple-fleshed sweet potatoes are rich in anthocyanins, the same antioxidant compound that turns blueberries blue and gives them a superfood reputation. The same year A.V. Thomas trialed the mysterious purple-purple sweet potato, TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz listed another cultivar — pale-skinned, mauve-fleshed beni-imo from Okinawa, Japan — as No. 1 of his top five superfoods. A year earlier, in 2009, The Oprah Winfrey Show had featured beni-imo when she interviewed researchers about Okinawa Island’s many centenarians and their diet consisting of about 60 percent sweet potatoes. Americans started looking to put the ‘Okinawan’ purples on the table, but these tubers were hard to come by. “They’re only grown in Hawaii and on Japan’s Okinawa Island, and they have to be irradiated when they come into the U.S.,” says Landis. “A lot of people don’t like that.”

A.V. Thomas tried growing the Japanese sweet potatoes on its plot in Merced County, but the crop failed dismally. “The ‘Okinawan’ sweet potato can have a difficult time growing in California because it’s very susceptible to disease,” says Fookes.






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