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Let’s face it, the sweet potato isn’t the most gorgeous veggie in the cornucopia. If Disney were sketching out a new fairy tale with anthropomorphized vegetables, the homely sweet potato would most likely be cast as the Ugly Stepsister, or even the Troll Under the Bridge.
But beneath that gnarly exterior lies a vegetal heart of pure platinum. In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest ranks the sweet potato as its No. 1 superfood for better health. So I would propose that the more appropriate casting would be the Prince Who Saves the Day!
And the sweet potato is certainly no Johnny-come-lately; it has been consumed since prehistoric times, with relics more than 10,000 years old turning up in caves in Peru. Native to Central and South America, it was borne back to Europe by Christopher Columbus after his first voyage to the New World. The Spanish spread it to the Philippines, and in the 16th century, the Portuguese brought it to Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. At the same time, it was being cultivated in the southernmost areas of what would become the United States.
Though there are more than 400 varieties, ranging in color from white to cream, yellow, orange, pink, and even deep purple, the most commonly seen versions are white and yellow-orange. And by the way—those “yams” at your grocery store? They’re actually sweet potatoes. True yams are starchy and not sweet. They’re rarely available in American markets and can grow up to 100 pounds each!
Sweet Potato Nutrition
Our unexpected veggie hero derives its strength from unique root storage proteins with significant antioxidant properties. It is also overwhelmingly supplied with vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, plus a megadose of vitamin C, not to mention significant fiber. These powerful antioxidants allow the sweet potato to joust with free radicals, averting the disasters of atherosclerosis, diabetic heart disease, and colon cancer. And the anti-inflammatory effects of these antioxidants aid in combat against asthma and arthritis.
Studies indicate that this terrific tuber is also a stalwart defender of folks exposed to cigarette smoke. A common carcinogen in cigarette smoke that causes vitamin A deficiency is offset by a rich source of that vitamin, such as sweet potatoes, and may help to ward off emphysema. A strong protector indeed!
What to Look For
No one can say the sweet potato isn’t versatile, though its uses in America tend to be limited. In Uganda, it’s served dried with peanut sauce for breakfast, or combined with cassava flour and served with smoked fish. It’s fermented into a Japanese alcoholic beverage called imo-jochu; in South America, the juice of the red variety is combined with lime to make a dye for cloth; and in the American South, it is baked into a sweetened pie.
When buying, choose tubers that are firm and unblemished—no cracks, bruises, or soft spots. Avoid those in the refrigerated case, as refrigeration alters taste. They’ll keep for up to 10 days if stored loose or in an open paper sack in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place—not the fridge.