What Is Sweet Potato?
When we were young, my Mom used to buy and cook sweet potatoes almost every day for our daily snacks. She would just boil them and most of the time right after coming back from school we would sit at the table and feast on them.
What we used to do, we would mash those potatoes and mixed them with milk and sugar, sometimes with the skin or sometimes without the skin. Think about how you eat the common mashed potato nowadays. Yes, that’s it. Mashed sweet potatoes.Wonderful!
To this day, I just love eating them just plain without sugar and milk, and sometimes that will be my food for the day.
Introducing Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are large, starchy, sweet-tasting vegetables. They actually belong to the morning glory family.
Despite the shared name, sweet potatoes are only distantly related to the potatoes used to make French fries or potato chips. Non-sweet potatoes (including red, white, and Yukon gold varieties) are part of the edible nightshade family. Other members include tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, peppers, pimentos, and Goji berries.
Sweet potatoes are root tubers. Other root tubers include beets, carrots, parsnips, celeriac, and turnips. Root tubers store water and energy, like starch and other carbohydrates, underground. They draw upon these resources to feed the aboveground parts of the plant.
Where Did Sweet Potatoes Come From?
Sweet potatoes are some of the oldest foods known to humanity.
They are native to Central and South America. We have fossil evidence that sweet potatoes were growing in the Americas 35 million years ago. But very recently, scientists discovered 57-million-year-old leaf fossils in India that appear to be ancient morning glory leaves. This could beat the American claim as the point of origin of the sweet potato family by about 22 million years.
It doesn’t matter where sweet potatoes come from. I’m just so grateful that they are available worldwide now.
What Is The Difference Between Sweet Potatoes And Yams?
Yams are a monocot (a plant having one embryonic seed leaf) and from the Dioscoreaceae or Yam family. Sweet Potatoes, often called ‘yams’, are a dicot (a plant having two embryonic seed leaves) and are from the Convolvulaceae or morning glory family.
People often mistakenly refer to sweet potatoes as “yams.” But these two plants are not related. Yams are related to grasses and lilies and native to Africa and Asia. They’re usually cylindrical with black or brown, rough, bark-like skin, and white, purple, or red flesh. Sweet potatoes have characteristically tapered ends with smoother skin.
The above picture is an image of yams. The skin of yam looks kind of like tree bark, while the sweet potato is more reddish-brown. Real yams are entirely different root vegetables that are more like yucca in texture and flavor. They have bumpy, tough brown skin (that looks almost tree trunk-like) with starchy, not sweet flesh.
There are actually two types of sweet potatoes in most mainstream produce sections: firm and soft. Grocers needed a way to differentiate between the two types. The soft kind, which includes the Garnet and Jewel varieties, resembles yams. This is how they picked up the false name.
Sweet Potatoes Varieties
The sweet potato geeks of the world may be fascinated to know that the International Potato Center in Peru maintains a gene bank consisting of over 6,500 varieties of sweet potato. Wow! Just imagine that. How I wished I can taste them all.
Sweet potato varieties range in color from dark red to brown to purple to orange-yellow to white. They also have different tastes, sizes, shapes, and textures.
Just a Few of the Most Popular Types of Sweet Potatoes:
- Garnet, Jewel, and Beauregard sweet potatoes have reddish-orange skin and deep orange flesh. These are often the ones masquerading as yams at mainstream grocery stores. Who knew sweet potatoes could be so sneaky?
- White sweet potatoes are crumbly, with white flesh and golden brown skin. They don’t contain as many antioxidants as orange varieties.
- Okinawan sweet potatoes are also known as purple sweet potatoes because of their high anthocyanin content. Anthocyanins are the pigments that give red, blue, and violet plant foods their beautiful colors. Anthocyanins are also what give Okinawan potatoes 150% more antioxidant power than blueberries
Despite their name, Okinawan potatoes are actually native to the Americas. They were brought over to Japan sometime in the 16th century, where they grow well and have become a staple in Japanese dishes. In North America, you will most likely find true purple sweet potatoes in an Asian supermarket.
- Japanese or Satsumaimo sweet potatoes are known for being sweeter than most other types. This is especially true when they start caramelizing in the oven.
What Makes A Sweet Potato Sweet!
When you heat sweet potatoes, an enzyme starts breaking down their starch into a sugar called maltose. Maltose isn’t as sweet as table sugar. But it’s enough to satisfy a sweet tooth that hasn’t been entirely overwhelmed by M&M’s and Hershey’s Kisses.
You can control the sweetness of sweet potatoes somewhat by how you cook them. Cooking sweet potatoes quickly (for instance, by steaming them or cutting them into smaller pieces before roasting) can reduce their ultimate sweetness.
Cooking Sweet Potato
On the other hand, cooking sweet potatoes slowly on low heat will allow that maltose-making enzyme more time to convert the starch into sugar — giving you sweeter sweet potatoes.
How Does Sweet Potato Help In Losing Weight?
Sweet potatoes are rich in important nutrients, which can help you stay healthy as you lose weight. They are considered as low-glycemic foods that do not cause an instant spike in blood sugar levels, further helping maintain weight efficiently. The high water content in sweet potatoes makes them great for weight loss.
- Sweet potatoes have lesser calories than potatoes have. So having a medium-sized baked or roasted sweet potato for snacks may not hurt your weight loss goals.
- Sweet potatoes come loaded with fiber, especially when served with the skin on. Dietary fiber tends to absorb water, making you feel fuller, further helping you to stick to a calorie-restricted diet. Regular potatoes are low in fiber content, making them less healthy than their counterparts.
Low Glycemic Index
- Sweet potatoes are known to reduce your appetite. A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that sweet potatoes have the ability to shrink fat cells. They are considered as low-glycemic foods that do not cause an instant spike in blood sugar levels, further helping maintain weight efficiently. An unstable blood glucose level can cause conditions like obesity and diabetes.
- The high water content in sweet potatoes makes them great for weight loss. Dehydration slows down your metabolism, further causing weight gain and other health problems. Consuming sweet potatoes helps rehydrate your cells and boost metabolic activity in the body. This, in turn, will help prevent your body from accumulating fat, balance the natural pH levels, and flush out toxins.
Incredible Sweet Potato Health Benefits
#1: They Support Digestive Health
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of fiber, especially when you eat the skin. Fiber is important for your digestive health, preventing constipation and serious diseases, such as colon cancer.
One medium sweet potato has six grams of dietary fiber. They also contain resistant starch, a type of starch that plays a role in feeding your body’s “good” bacteria.
#2: They Keep Your Heart Healthy
The high fiber content of sweet potatoes can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, helping to prevent cardiovascular disease. Sweet potatoes are also high in potassium, which works in balance with sodium in your body to maintain healthy blood pressure.
They’re also high in copper, an essential metal for making red blood cells and keeping your heart healthy. Low levels of copper have been linked to dangerously high homocysteine, blood pressure, and LDL cholesterol levels.
#3: They Help Stabilize Blood Sugar
The fiber and complex carbohydrates in sweet potatoes can help keep your blood sugar stable. And it can help you feel full longer. Sweet potato varieties also contain other substances that benefit stable blood sugar.
A 2004 study published in Diabetes Care successfully used Caiapo, an extract from white sweet potatoes, to naturally reduce and manage blood glucose in people with type 2 diabetes.
The 30 participants who were given 4 grams of Caiapo every day for 12 weeks saw a decrease in their HbA(1c) (going from 7.21 to 6.68), fasting blood glucose (143.7 vs. 128.5), and two-hour blood glucose (193.3 vs.162.8). The 31 participants who were given a placebo instead saw no such results.
#4: They Can Boost Your Immunity
Sweet potatoes are rich in antioxidants that prevent free radical damage in your body.
One cup of baked sweet potato contains 52% of your daily value for vitamin C, which is important for wound healing and tissue repair.
And the vitamin A in sweet potatoes helps your body make immune cells that stave off infections and disease and have anti-tumor effects. Purple sweet potatoes contain especially potent antioxidants.
#5: They Are Good for Your Eyes
Sweet potatoes contain several nutrients that have been linked to improved eye health and vision. Some of the most powerful are carotenoids. They include alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Beta-carotene, when taken as a supplement in isolation from the other carotenoids, can cause imbalances. But when eaten in foods, where it is always accompanied by, and in balance with, an entire suite of carotenoids, it’s been shown to have powerful anti-cancer and vision-enhancing properties.
Orange sweet potatoes (as well as other orange plants, including carrots) have particularly high concentrations of carotenoids.
It’s not just the orange sweet potatoes that are good for your vision, though. A class of anthocyanins called PSPA, derived from purple sweet potato roots, might also benefit your eyes.
A study published in Food & Nutrition Research in 2015 looked at whether PSPA could influence the health and growth of human retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells.
Why does this matter? The RPE is responsible for helping your eyes absorb light. It also directs immune response when faced with a threat to eye health. The researchers found that PSPA promoted DNA synthesis and healthy RPE cell growth and survival. They concluded that PSPA could potentially find use as a supplement for maintaining healthy vision.
#6: They Fuel Your Brain
Sweet potatoes also contain compounds that help your brain function at its best, including choline and manganese.
Choline is an essential nutrient for brain growth and development, as well as the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that sends messages between cells.
Manganese is also important for brain health. It binds to neurotransmitters and helps move electrical impulses through your body faster. You can find 43% of your daily value of manganese in one cup of baked sweet potato.
The anthocyanins unique to purple sweet potatoes may also have memory-enhancing properties.
#7: They Can Help Ease Stress and Anxiety
Sweet potatoes may help you relax. They’re high in magnesium, which has been shown to play a role in calming the brain. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to depression, mood disturbances, and headaches.
Other good sources of magnesium include avocados, legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, and greens.
#8: They Can Help Boost Fertility
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient for healthy reproduction. And as we know, sweet potatoes are a fantastic source.
Sweet potatoes also offer a rich supply of iron, which has also been shown to be important in supporting fertility.
#9: They Can Help Fight Cancer
Sweet potatoes are a rich source of cancer-fighting antioxidants, especially in their skin. They have other anti-cancer properties, too.
Up to 80% of the protein in sweet potatoes is a type of storage protein known as sporamin. This unique protein has been studied for anti-cancer ability and found to be effective in several disease types.
Research has been promising in the use of sporamin to inhibit tongue, gallbladder, and colorectal cancers. It has also been shown capable of slowing cancer cell growth and reducing cell migration and invasion in metastatic cancers.
Sweet potato peels, particularly those of the purple varieties, maybe especially powerful when it comes to cancer prevention.
A study published in Nutrition and Cancer in 2016 looked at the antioxidant and anti-cancer effects of an extract from sweet potato peels. They found a promising anti-cancer activity for cancers of the breast, colon, ovary, lung, and head/neck.
#10: They Have Anti-Inflammatory Effects
Eating sweet potatoes may also help reduce inflammation.
This is chiefly due to their high levels of beta-carotene, vitamin C, and magnesium. Their abundance of antioxidants doesn’t hurt here, either.
One of the particular antioxidants that are found most abundantly in purple sweet potato flesh is cyanidin. Cyanidin has been linked to reducing inflammation, especially in the digestive tract.
What’s your favorite way to enjoy sweet potatoes?
Tell us in the comments.
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