Meet the robust vegetal heroes of late autumn and winter that Americans love best.
It’s not hard to guess which cold-season vegetable is America’s favorite. The humble potato outpaces all its closest rivals by a wide margin, accounting for 15 percent of all vegetable farm sales receipts. An impressive 44 billion pounds of potatoes are harvested each year in the United States, and Americans consume an average of 46 pounds of fresh potatoes, 55 pounds of frozen potato products, and 17 pounds of potato chips per person each year.
Tastes have evolved, however, as consumers move away from fresh products toward processed ones, something for which potatoes are well-suited. For example, Vox reports that the 42 pounds of fresh potatoes eaten per person is a mere half of what it was in the 1960s, when Americans ate 81 pounds annually.
Carrots are the next most popular cold-weather vegetable in the States, although they’re only number 7 on the USDA’s list of most popular vegetables. They’re eaten at an estimated rate of 29 carrots per American per year, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation. This works out to approximately 8.5 pounds of fresh carrots per person annually, as well as 0.7 pounds of frozen carrots.
One marketing group states that baby-cut carrots have led the surge: “Baby-cut carrot products have been the fastest growing segment of the carrot industry since the early 1990s and are among the most popular produce items in the supermarket aisle.”
3. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are far less popular than regular potatoes, with only 3 billion pounds harvested in the U.S. in 2015. However, this amount represents an impressive 80 percent increase between 2000 and 2014, and annual per capita consumption has grown to 7.5 pounds.
Over half hail from North Carolina, where they’re grown on similar land to tobacco. This tuberous vegetable, which was embraced centuries ago by West African slaves who were reminded of their staple yams, comes in a multitude of colors, shapes, and sizes. It has become much more popular in recent years due to its high vitamin A content and its new reputation as a nutrient-packed, low-glycemic-index carbohydrate.
Pumpkin is way behind sweet potatoes in terms of popularity, but it still squeaks in ahead of squash. Pumpkin production has dropped considerably in the past year, from 1.3 billion pounds in 2014 to 753 million pounds in 2016. The USDA Economic Research Service says, “Production dropped over 40 percent from 2014 largely due to a drop in acreage planted and harvested in Illinois.” Illinois is one of the 6 states that produces the majority of U.S. pumpkins; others are Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, New York, and Michigan.
The fact that pumpkin is more popular than squash came as a surprise to me, since pumpkin seems to struggle with its image. Most Americans don’t buy pumpkins to cook them fresh; indeed, I’ve got a pretty pie pumpkin that’s been sitting on the window sill for six weeks. Pumpkins are typically purchased to carve and decorate, or else in canned form for baking seasonal desserts. Pumpkin farmers obviously want home cooks to branch out and view it as a viable dinner option, but much will have to change before that’s commonplace.
Finally there is squash, which has expanded greatly from the butternut/acorn dichotomy I recall from childhood to a luscious smorgasbord of heirloom varieties, such as delicata, kabocha, and red kuri, not to mention the moderately popular spaghetti, hubbard, turban, sweet dumpling, and buttercup squashes. (Look here for the low-down on how each compares nutritionally.)
Squash is primarily eaten fresh at an average quantity of 4.4 pounds per person each year (as of 2009). Interestingly, the U.S. imports the most squash of any country in the world, with 95 percent of its squash coming from Mexico. Perhaps there is potential for developing more of a domestic industry?
I like to think that demand for squash will continue to grow as people move toward seasonal eating, realizing that eating locally-farmed squash in November has a much smaller carbon footprint than importing refrigerated heads of Romaine from California greenhouses.