Sweet Potatoes, Sweet Facts

Sweet Potatoes

Image courtesy of University of North Carolina

Sweet Potatoes, Sweet Facts
| published November 21, 2015 |

By Maggie Nichols
Thursday Review contributor

Yes, believe it or not, Thanksgiving—the great American holiday for family and friends—is almost upon us. And for many people, that means baked or roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, dressing, and a lot of other things we rarely eat any other time of the year.

November also brings the sweet potato to life, especially for those who regard it as a seasonal item, choosing instead for much of the year to eat the traditional baked potato or mashed potatoes.

But the sweet potato gets overlooked a lot. It is underrated for both flavor, and for its remarkable health benefits, and should be a part of everyone’s diet.

First, however, let’s get something straight: sweet potatoes are not to be confused with yams. Many people—millions, perhaps—use the names interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. But yams are not sweet potatoes, nor, vice versa. Indeed, a typical yam and a typical sweet potato do look very similar, and in fact, their food values are strikingly close, with 20 grams of carbs for the yam and 28 grams for the potato. They are also identical when it comes to protein: 1.5 grams each, per serving, or exactly 3% of your recommended intake of protein. And they each contain Vitamins A and C.

But the yam, which is native to Africa and South America, is not related in any way to potatoes—of any kind. Yams grow on vines, much in the same way that beans grow—though the vines are heavier. Yams can also grow to be surprisingly large: up to six feet in some parts of Africa and equatorial South America (not the sort of thing you would look for in your nearby Publix or Harris-Teeter).

Yams—which have much more natural sugar content than even the sweetest sweet potato—also grow easily in the Caribbean, where there are dozens of varieties in markets and stores. (We’ll have some great recipes for yams, cooked and prepared Caribbean-style, in future articles). Yams are very difficult to grow in North America (a few are grown in South Florida, but differences in soil content mean the taste is more bitter).

Sweet potatoes are true members of the potato family of foods. Grown easily in many parts of the American South, some of the preferred varieties come from North and South Carolina, or from Virginia. They are also frequently grown in areas as diverse as northern Florida, central Mississippi, and as far south as Mexico. Sweet potatoes, like red potatoes, baking potatoes and other varieties, come in several colors and textures, and with varying degrees of “sweetness” or bitterness. Depending on the region of the country, sweet potatoes are also grown virtually year round, which means that they tend to remain affordable in stores regardless of the season.

One thing they all have in common: sweet potatoes are packed with nutritional value. For one, a typical serving (which for the sake of this article we can assume would be one small-to-medium sized potato) contain between 300 and 400% of the Vitamin A needed to maintain a balanced diet. That’s not a typo; we said 400%. The typical sweet potato does this while packing in a modest 110-120 calories.

Sweet potatoes are also loaded with Vitamin C—more than 35% of what is recommended. Vitamin C is not only a crucial vitamin useful in warding off common ailments, like colds and flus, but it also an all-important antioxidant—responsible in large part for slowing the natural aging processes and aiding in routine tissue repair.

Sweet potatoes are also loaded with other vitamins and minerals, including B-6 (16%), and potassium (15%). Sweet potatoes—like other potatoes—also contain small amounts of calcium, iron and folate (folic acid). The beta-carotene content of the sweet potato nearly rivals the carrot. Another antioxidant, beta-carotene is believed to be instrumental is reducing the risk of specific kinds of cancer (especially skin cancer), and many major medical studies have shown that people who consume sweet potatoes as a regular part of their diet are at a lower risk for stroke and heart attack. Sweet potatoes are also linked to reductions in inflammation and in reduced risk for asthma.

Important prep tip: never remove the skin of a sweet potato. Like other fruits and veggies, the skin of the sweet potato contains heavy percentages of the valuable nutrients. But in the case of the sweet potato, nearly all the potassium and virtually all of the high fiber content is found in the skin.

Like other foods with natural sugar content, sweet potatoes are also thought to be useful for people who suffer from diabetes. According to the website Medical News Today, people who have Type One Diabetes and who consume high-fiber diets with natural forms of sugar (like sweet potatoes) have lower blood glucose levels. The high fiber content may also benefit those who suffer from Type Two Diabetes by helping to better manage lipids and insulin levels.

Finally, there is your eye health: sweet potatoes, like other natural sources of Vitamins A and C, have been shown to slow degenerative afflictions of the eyes. And the Vitamin A found naturally in sweet potatoes can actually improve eyes and help to restore vision by correcting vitamin deficiencies.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Cantaloupe: Low Calorie, High Sweetness; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; June 29, 2014.

What is a Plantain: Plantains Versus Bananas; Michael Sigler; Thursday Review; June 27, 2014.