If you only eat sweet potatoes as part of your traditional Thanksgiving meal, you are missing out on one of the most nutritious vegetables of them all.
The sweet potato, though, is not really a potato at all. It is a flowering dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the Convolvulaceae family, which is the same botanical family of morning glories. The part of the sweet potato plant we eat is the tuberous root. Native to Central and South America, the sweet potato can be grown year-round in temperate climates. In North America, it is most frequently harvested in the fall.
Sweet potatoes are often confused with yams, but once again, this comparison is not accurate. In the U.S., most of the vegetables you see labelled as yams are really a variety of sweet potato. True yams are not typically sold in American supermarkets.
Both yams and sweet potatoes are the tuberous roots of a flowering plant, but, other than that, they do not have much in common. To compare them is like equating beets with swiss chard – they are related but not the same.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that sweet potatoes come in about 400 different varieties. Some sweet potatoes are shaped like white potatoes, while others are shorter with a block shape and still others have long, tapered ends.
Sweet potatoes also come in a wide range of colors. Although a creamy or orangey flesh tone is most common, they can be yellow, pink or purple. The deeper the color, the more intense the amount of certain nutrients, such as the high beta-carotene found in dark orange sweet potatoes and the high level of anthocyanins in deep purple sweet potatoes.
In terms of health benefits, there is no comparison between sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. In fact, a study by the nutritional advocacy group The Center for Science in the Public Interest gave sweet potatoes the highest score in a ranking of nutritious veggies.
Here are 10 health benefits sweet potatoes provide or promote:
1. Heart health. Sweet potatoes are high in vitamin B6, a mineral that helps decrease the amount of the chemical homocysteine in our bodies. High levels of homocysteine are associated with heart attacks.
2. Cold and flu prevention. Sweet potatoes are rich in Vitamin C, which plays an important role in your body’s ability to fight cold and flu viruses. Vitamin C also helps in wound healing, skin elasticity and stress reduction.
3. Bone and tooth formation. The Vitamin D in sweet potatoes helps your body build and maintain strong bones. Vitamin D, which our bodies produce from exposure to sunlight, also aids immune system function, and a lack of this vitamin can affect our moods.
4. Immune system health. Sweet potatoes contain iron, which helps the body produce healthy red and white blood cells and aids in the fight against infection.
5. Stress reduction. Magnesium is abundant in sweet potatoes, and this mineral helps de-stress our bodies. Magnesium also is important for heart health and nerve function. Manganese also can help women who suffer with PMS have fewer mood swings and milder cramps.
6. Blood pressure regulation. Potassium is another mineral contained in sweet potatoes. Potassium provides many important benefits, including helping to regulate blood pressure, the heartbeat and nerve signals; relaxing muscle contractions; reducing swelling and controlling kidney function.
7. Reduced blood sugar spikes. The natural sugar contained in sweet potatoes releases slowly into the bloodstream, offering a balanced source of energy, without the blood sugar spikes that can trigger fatigue and weight gain.
8. Eyesight protection. Rich orange sweet potatoes are high in carotenoids (such as beta carotene) that can strengthen our eyesight, boost immunity and protect against the effects of aging. Foods that are rich in carotenoids also may offer some protection to certain types of cancer.
9. Inflammation reduction. Sweet potatoes are a good plant-based source of choline, a micronutrient in the B-vitamin family that helps reduce chronic inflammation. Choline also aids sleep, muscle movement and cognitive skills.
10. Digestion. Sweet potatoes are a good source of fiber, which aids in digestion and can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.
Sweet potatoes are a versatile food. You can serve them steamed, roasted, baked, puréed or grilled. Try substituting them for white potatoes in many of your recipes.
How to select and store sweet potatoes
- Choose fresh tubers with light, unblemished and unwrinkled skin.
- Check for bruising. Sweet potatoes are somewhat delicate, and any cuts or bruises deteriorate quickly, affecting the freshness and taste of the vegetable.
- Store sweet potatoes in a cool, dark, dry place for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on when they were harvested and your storage conditions. Storing them in the refrigerator will shorten their freshness and make them taste less sweet.
Do you know of other health benefits of sweet potatoes? Share your tips in the section below: