Friday, August 9, 2013

Ahh, Sweet Potata!

The humble and healthy sweet potato is the oldest vegetable known.  Dating back to Peruvian caves 10,000 years ago, this flowering tuber from the morning-glory family can be found in over 400 varieties, ranging in color from white, yellow, pink, purple, and the familiar orange (Harbster, 2009).  Often mistaken and even mislabeled for yams, they are botanically different from the firmer, starchier yam, which is related to lilies and grasses (2009).
The firm, white, varieties of sweet potato were first introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus, and by the 16th century, sweet potatoes were being enjoyed in Africa, India, the Philippines, and the southern United States.  Around the mid 1900’s, the orange sweet potato began to be cultivated in the US.  This softer variety of sweet potato resembled the orange-colored African yam, so the southern slaves began referring to them as yams (Harbster, 2009).  The name caught on because it also helped distinguish the new, soft variety from the firmer varieties previously cultivated in the US.  True yams are also from a flowering plant, but they are from the yam family, and are starchier, drier, and less sweet than the sweet potato (2009).
The sweet potato's yellow or orange colored flesh is directly related to the amount of beta-carotene it contains (Evert, 2013).  Although as children we were all told to eat our carrots to help our eyesight, sweet potatoes would have had the same effect.  Beta-carotene is an antioxidant; protecting our cells from free radical damage, but the benefit does not stop there.  Our body also uses the beta-carotene to produce vitamin A, which promotes better low-light vision, and helps us maintain healthy teeth and skin.  We get preformed vitamin A from animal products like eggs, meat, fish, cheese, and milk, but those are usually high in saturated fat and cholesterol as well.  The vitamin A derived from plant-based foods starts out as beta-carotene, and since it is produced in our body, it is referred to as pro-vitamin A.  Sweet potatoes have anti-inflammatory properties, along with extracts that help regulate blood sugar in persons with type-2 diabetes (2013).  Sweet potatoes are cultivated in many countries, and are available year-round, so we do not have to wait until the holidays to enjoy them.
Interestingly enough, studies have shown that the beta-carotene is better absorbed from sweet potatoes when it is consumed along with fat-containing foods (Evert, 2013).  This is not a license to pig out however, as it only takes a small amount of fat, which can be derived from healthy sources, like just a sprinkle of nuts atop your sweet potato.  Below is the recipe that made me a sweet potato-lover.  I had never liked the marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes (often mistakenly called yams) commonly served at holiday meals, but this baked sweet potato with a sweet and nutty topping is perfect.  This recipe was inspired by one posted to by MommyMakes.  My version has more topping and I do not toast the nuts in it.  My entire family, right down to the 6 year-old loves these potatoes.  I hope you do too!

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Brown Sugar and Pecan Butter
4 Sweet potatoes
4 Tablespoons softened butter
4 Tablespoons brown sugar
4 Tablespoons chopped pecans (or walnuts)

Directions:  Wash and scrub the sweet potatoes, but do not peel them.  Using a fork, prick each potato several times to vent the steam.  Arrange potatoes on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on High power for 8-12 minutes, or until tender in the center, when pierced with a fork.  Meanwhile, combine butter, brown sugar, and nuts.  When the potatoes are cooked, slice each one lengthwise, just about 2/3 of the way down into the potato, but not cutting all the way through.  Carefully push the potato’s ends together to open the potato.  Top each opening with pecan butter and serve.

Evert, A. (2013). U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health MedlinePlus. Vitamin A. Retrieved from
Harbster, J. (2009). Library of Congress. Retrieved from

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