Sweet potatoes are not very sweet when they have first been harvested. They need time to rest and develop their sweetness. Sweet potatoes are grouped into two categories based on texture when cooked. The pale sweet potato has light-colored beige skin with light-yellow flesh and has a firm, dry and crumbly texture that is not as sweet.
The darker sweet potato has thicker skin with dark-orange to purple flesh and has a sweeter, softer and moister texture. Sweet potatoes are available year-round with a peak season in winter.
Sweet potatoes are native to Central and South America with evidence dating back 10,000 years. Christopher Columbus brought the tuber to Europe after his trip to the New World in 1492.
Sweet potatoes quickly spread across Europe and were brought to other parts of the world in the 16th century by Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
Today, China is the largest producer, followed by Africa, Central and South America and the United States. Within the United States, more than half the production is from Southern states, especially North Carolina. The sweet potatoes grown in the Northern region of the United States are the pale and dry-fleshed variety.
Healthy Ingredient Contribution
Values from NutritionData.com based on sweet potato, cooked, baked in skin, without salt, 200 grams
Sweet potatoes are high in nutrients that have antioxidant properties, which protect against free radicals that cause aging, cancer and disease. They also support memory function and coordination.
Phytochemicals are powerful antioxidants that help protect against cellular damage and are the natural pigments that give sweet potato flesh its color.
Orange-colored flesh contains beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A, and purple-colored flesh includes anthocyanin, which helps improve memory and acts as an anti-inflammatory.
One serving of sweet potatoes provides 769 percent of the daily recommended value of vitamin A, which is essential for healthy eyes, bones and teeth. The antioxidant properties of vitamin A combat free radicals that can damage the skin.
Sweet potatoes contain 65 percent of the daily recommended value of vitamin C. This vitamin protects against infectious agents by strengthening the immune system. It also promotes healing and coping with stress.
Types and Varieties
Beauregard sweet potatoes are the most popular variety and are uniform in size and shape with smooth skin and deep-orange flesh. Buttery with a subtle sweetness, this variety is good for biscuits and mashed potatoes.
Garnet sweet potatoes are slender and cylindrical, tapering at the ends with a rough skin and golden-orange flesh with a loose, watery texture. This variety has an earthy flavor and is good for mashed potatoes.
Okinawan sweet potatoes have beige skin and slightly sweet, vibrant-purple flesh with a dense, starchy texture. Popular in Japan and Hawaii, this variety is good for boiling and roasting.
Speckled purple sweet potatoes have reddish-purple skin and bright magenta flesh with white speckles. This variety stays firm after being cooked and has a mild, nutty flavor.
Hayman sweet potatoes are smaller than the other varieties with tan and oddly-shaped bumps. The flesh is dense and fibrous with a delicate, sweet taste, making it ideal for pies.
O’Henry sweet potatoes are uniform in size and shape with smooth, thin skin and creamy, white flesh. Pleasantly sweet, this tuber is good for grating and roasting.
Selecting and Storing
Look for firm sweet potatoes without cracks, bruises or soft spots, and avoid ones that are wrinkled, sticky or sprouting.
Store sweet potatoes in a cool, dark, well-ventilated area for up to 10 days. They should be loose or in a paper bag with holes, not in a plastic bag. Do not refrigerate as this negatively affects the flavor.
Sweet potatoes should be washed and scrubbed before preparing. They can be peeled before cooking with a vegetable peeler or after cooking by cutting them open and scooping out the flesh.
Steaming sweet potatoes will help retain most nutrients. Sweet potatoes can be boiled, baked or roasted and can be found canned or frozen. Do not eat raw sweet potatoes.
Include some healthy fat in meals containing sweet potatoes to gain the full antioxidant benefits of beta-carotene.
Make mashed potatoes healthier by adding sweet potatoes, or slice and bake them for crunchy and healthy chips.
Add cubed sweet potatoes to casseroles and stews, or grate them and make a breakfast hash.
George Washington, the United States’ first president, was a sweet potato farmer.
George Washington Carver, a famous scientist, used sweet potatoes to invent more than 100 new products, such as postage stamp glue, starch and synthetic rubber.
During the Civil War, food and drink supplies, including coffee, ran low in the South, so they cut sweet potatoes into thin pieces and then dried, ground and brewed them.
Despite being sometimes called yams, sweet potatoes are from a different food family from both yams and the common potato.
Read more about sweet potatoes and take the quiz at acfchefs.org/iotm.