In pies or cut into fries, candied, baked, boiled, or mashed, sweet potatoes are a treat for the taste buds. But did you know they’re also one of the most nutritious foods you can eat? It’s true!
In 1992, nutritionists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest compared dozens of common vegetables and ranked the sweet potato highest in nutritional value.
Points were awarded for dietary fiber content, complex carbohydrates, protein, and for high concentrations of vitamins and minerals, and were deducted for fat content — particularly dangerous saturated fat — sodium, cholesterol, refined sugars, and caffeine.
With a whopping 184-point score, the sweet potato outstripped the second most nutritious vegetable — the common potato — by more than 100 points!
What’s so great about sweet potatoes, you ask? For starters, they’re chock full of protein, iron, and calcium, they contain nearly two times the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, almost half of the daily recommendation for vitamin C, and four times the recommended daily allowance for beta carotene. They are also rich in potassium and, when eaten with the skin, provide more fiber than an entire bowl of oatmeal.
Sweet potatoes also offer natural sugars and complex carbohydrates, which means they provide high amounts of energy over an extended period of time.
Because sweet potato digests slowly, it causes your blood sugar to rise more gradually than foods containing simple carbohydrates or refined sugar, so they make you feel satisfied for a longer time.
Sweet potatoes also offer the lowest glycemic index rating of any root vegetable, which means that, despite their sweet flavor, they are good for diabetics and others who need to limit their sugar intake.
Native to Central and South America, sweet potatoes were first cultivated more than 5,000 years ago. Though they weren’t encountered by Europeans until the 15th Century, they were known and enjoyed throughout the Southern Hemisphere, including Polynesia and the Caribbean, long before the Americas were colonized.
Today, they are cultivated in every region with sufficient water and warmth to support their growth.
Every year, 127 million tons of sweet potatoes are grown worldwide, with most of those being produced in China. In the United States, North Carolina is the leading sweet potato producer, provides 40 of the nation’s annual crop.
Other major producers include Mississippi and Kentucky, both of which are home to at least one annual festival in honor of the sweet potato.
A staple of “soul food,” and southern cuisine in general, sweet potatoes have traditionally made their biggest showing at Thanksgiving table, primarily in the form of “candied yams” — sweet potatoes baked with brown sugar, marshmallows, maple syrup, molasses, or similar sweet ingredients — or in the form of sweet potato pie.
In recent years, however, sweet potatoes have broken out. Many pub-style restaurants now offer them sliced up into fries or chips, and baked sweet potatoes gaining in popularity as an alternative to baked potatoes. They also make a delicious addition to countless recipes, especially spicy Tex-Mex dishes such as burritos or cornbread with chili.
Did You Know? Some Sweet Potato Trivia
– Though they’re often referred to as “yams” in North America, sweet potatoes are not actually a member of the yam family. Yams are monocots — plants that have only one embryonic seed leaf — from the Dioscoreaceae, or yam, family, whereas sweet potatoes are dicots — plants with two embryonic seed leaves — from the Convolvulacea, or morning glory, family.
– The sweet potato is not closely related to the common potato, either, though both are members of the order Solanales.
– While the flesh of sweet potatoes most commonly eaten in North America is orange, you’ll find a range of colors, from pale yellow to deep red or purple.
– There are seven major varieties of sweet potatoes: Jersey, Kotobuki (Japanese), Okinawan (Purple), Papa Doc, Beauregard, Garnet, Jewel, and the newest named variety, Covington.
– Parts of the sweet potato plant have been used in traditional natural remedies for centuries. Uses include treating asthma, diabetes, hookworm, hemorrhage, and abscesses.
– Sweet potatoes are “root tubers” and regular potatoes are “stem tubers.”
– The first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes were members of Columbus’ expedition to Haiti in 1492.
– In South America, the juice of red sweet potatoes is combined with lime juice to make dyes for cloth. Depending on the proportions of the juices, shades from pink to purple to black can be obtained.
Here’s an easy, and tasty, recipe:
Spicy Baked Sweet Potato Chips
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- Line baking sheet with foil.
- Mix together olive oil, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
- Brush sweet potato slices with maple mixture and place on a prepared baking sheet.
- Bake in preheated oven for 8 minutes, turning slices over afterward.
- Brush with remaining maple mixture and continue baking about 7 more minutes, or until tender in the middle and crispy at the edges.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.