Let’s face it, we eat too many potatoes. Fries and potato chips are the biggest culprit. They have minimal nutritional substance and a hefty load of starch and empty calories, leading to weight gain when consumed in excess.
Then there’s the sweet potato – probably the most under-appreciated food in the vegetable world. They are, in fact, little nutritional bombs waiting to explode in your body, releasing nutritional goodness throughout. The best part is that they are delectable! They’re not the most flexible culinary food, as they have a unique flavor and texture that can be difficult to tame. But, even cooked on their own with a little oil, they are a delicious, nutritious treat.
Sweet Potato History and Culture
The sweet potato originated in the tropical climates of South America. They have been domesticated and cultivated here for at least 5,000 years. From here, it spread in concentric circles to the Caribbean, Peru, Hawaii, New Zealand, and then the world at large. Polynesia seemed to already be producing other strains of sweet potatoes before they were discovered by the west in South America, so there are other theories that it spread from here.
Sweet potatoes enjoy warm, tropical environments. The US grows a good amount of sweet potatoes in North Carolina, California, Louisiana, and Mississippi. China grows the large majority of sweet potatoes in the world, roughly 80% of global output.
The sweet potato is often confused for yams. Yams and sweet potatoes are, in fact, completely unrelated vegetables, coming from different families entirely. Yams have darker skins, are sweeter, and can grow up to seven feet in length! Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, typically have lighter skin with pale-yellow flesh. The darker skinned sweet potato commonly referred to as “yam” in grocery stores is actually a sweet potato strain. The USDA now requires that any store selling these “yams” must now also label them sweet potato to prevent confusion.
Sweet Potato Health Benefits
Beta carotene is the nutrient responsible for giving sweet potato’s flesh its orange pigment. Beta carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body. A meager 200 gram serving of sweet potato yields 769%DV of your vitamin A! Vitamin A can help improve vision and decrease your risk of heart attack and lung cancer.
Sweet potatoes contain a number of antioxidants that help the body reduce inflammation. The antioxidants cyandin and peonidin are both present in the flesh of sweet potatoes, which help cleanse the digestive tract of heavy metals. Other antioxidants found in the sweet potato help your blood clot more effectively.
And, not without irony, the sweet potato can help regulate blood sugar levels. This is especially true of people with type 2 diabetes.
Sweet potatoes also have a generous helping of fiber, which helps improve the digestive system.
Not only are sweet potatoes packed with nutrients – they’re easy to grow, and can be grown almost year round in equatorial climates. This is why sweet potatoes are more of a staple in developing countries – especially with school aged children.
Eating More Sweet Potatoes
Incorporating more sweet potatoes into your diet will yield healthy results. Not only because they are packed with nutrients, but because by eating them you’re probably replacing other starches in your life that are less nutritious. White potatoes, for instance.
When selecting sweet potatoes, squeeze them firmly in your hand. They should be firm, and give only slightly, if at all. Make the usual examination for cuts and bruises.
To store sweet potatoes, simply put them in a cool, dark, dry place. A low cabinet in the kitchen works well, or if you have a cellar, this is even better. Kept below 60 degrees F, they can store for about 10 days. Avoid refrigerating sweet potatoes, as this can affect it’s taste for the worse.
When cooking sweet potatoes, make sure to do so with some sort of fat. By eating sweet potatoes with fats, your body will more readily absorb the available vitamin A. It doesn’t take a whole lot to trigger this – just a few grams. This can be done by sautéing sweet potatoes in some extra virgin olive oil, preparing with nuts, or simply drizzling with oil or butter after its been steamed or boiled. Check out our baked sweet potato recipe for a tasty way to get started.