WHILE the lowly sweet potato may find a place of honor at...

salmagundi

January 26, 1995

WHILE the lowly sweet potato may find a place of honor at many a family groaning board over the winter season, the saccharine orange-fleshed tuber is a food of rapidly sinking popularity in the United States.

During the Depression 1930s, Americans ate about 23 pounds of sweet potatoes per person. Last year, the U.S. Agriculture Department reports, per capita consumption dropped to an all-time low of 3.9 pounds.

With only a trace of fat and lots of healthful beta carotene, sweet potatoes have been a nutritious food source since ancient times. But their appeal today is largely confined to the South and to older people with established preferences, except for the traditional appearance in candied form at holiday feasts.

Some restaurants have tried to prepare them as specialty french fries but they haven't caught on with diners, perhaps because of FTC the residual sweetness and a lack of expected crispness. Fresh baked is the most popular way to serve sweet potatoes, but the one-hour baking time is a discouragement to home cooks.

Agriculture Department scientists are trying to boost demand and uses for this shunned vegetable. They've come up with a quick-preparation frozen product that promises to be even better than the original, with a food additive that may also lower blood cholesterol levels.

They grind up the orange tubers, add texturizing agents and a little sugar and freeze the mixture as rolls. Baked in the oven without thawing in a mere 15 minutes, these sweet potato rolls were judged to be as tasty, nutritious and appealing as a fresh baked fresh potato. The use of methylhydroxypropylcellulose (MHPC) as a texturizer can help reduce serum cholesterol, the food scientists say.

Processing also allows the use of misshapen, oversized sweet potatoes that consumers won't buy in the market, promising a more efficient, expanded use of the 1 billion pounds of the vegetable that are grown in the United States annually.

Don't worry about the calories, either. A serving of sweet potatoes, even candied, has fewer calories than a serving of spinach souffle.

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