Sweet potato

Sweet potatoes have long been labeled as the "superheroes" of the tuber family while white potatoes are the "villains." But...is this really the case? Let's take a look at the benefits of sweet potatoes vs. potatoes as compiled by University Health News.

Origin and history

First, let's look at the origins and history of these two vegetables. The Incas in Peru, between 8,000 B.C. and 5,000 B.C., were the first to cultivate potatoes and then the Spanish conquistadors brought the tuber plants to Europe in 1536, and they were introduced to Ireland in 1589. The Europeans then introduced the potato to North America, where they spread slowly throughout the northern colonies. Because potatoes resembled plants from the nightshade family, people were slow to warm up to this nutritious vegetable, so it wasn't until the 1800s that they became a popular food.

There are more than 200 varieties of potatoes available throughout the United States, and each is placed in one of seven categories: russet, red, white, yellow, blue/purple, fingering and petite. Another 4,000 edible potato varieties can be found primarily in South America.

When it comes to the origins of sweet potatoes, it's important to note that technically, they aren't actually potatoes. Sweet potatoes are from the morning glory plant family, while the white potato is from the Solanum (nightshade) tuberosum family.

Like white potatoes, sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America, but prehistoric remnants were found in Polynesia between 1000 A.D. and 1100 A.D. How they got there is still a bit of a mystery. But Christopher Columbus took a liking to sweet potatoes during his voyages to the New World in 1492 and took some home to grow in Europe, where they gained popularity and spread throughout the continent.

In all, there are 6,500 sweet potato varieties, with skin colors varying from white to red and flesh colors from orange to purple. The orange-fleshed varieties are most popular in the U.S. and include Nemagold, Centennial and Southern Delite.

The good, the bad and the tasty

You've probably heard that eating white potatoes may cause you to gain weight or negatively affect your blood sugar levels, but according to medical experts, it's how you eat them that matters most.

Although white potatoes can be cooked in different ways, the American diet is strongly defined by its love for fried potatoes, which may make them an unpopular choice for people who are looking to eat a healthier diet.

If you eat them baked or broiled, however, and if you avoid fattening toppings such as cheese, sour cream, or bacon, the benefits of potatoes can outweigh the risks. Here are some good reasons to put white potatoes back into your diet if you've been avoiding them:

--They keep you satiated longer than other complex carbs. According to a recent study, participants were more satisfied consuming potatoes with meat than with rice or pasta and they had a lower calorie intake overall for the participants.

--They're a good source of resistant starch. When digested, white potatoes pass through the large intestine where it can feed on the good bacteria in your gut. This is beneficial for blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity.

--They provide antioxidants. White potatoes are a good source of antioxidants such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acids, which can help neutralize free radicals and help prevent cancer, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.

Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are a great choice for people with diabetes or for those at risk of developing diabetes because of their low-to-medium glycemic index (depending on whether they're eaten with the skin on or off), which means they won't make your blood sugar levels spike as much as white potatoes.

Here are some other reasons to choose sweet potatoes:

--They're a good source of manganese. This mineral is good for bone development, metabolism and vitamin absorption.

--They're loaded with magnesium. Known as the "great relaxation mineral," magnesium can help with blood sugar management, blood pressure and metabolism.

--They fight inflammation. In addition to the abundant amount of vitamin A found in the orange-fleshed varieties, the purple sweet potato varieties are a good source of anthocyanin, which contains anti-inflammatory properties.

The verdict

It's clear that both plants may have their pros and cons, but it all comes down to your preference in taste and your individual health goals. What appears to be most important, though, is that they're consumed in moderation. It's best to find healthy ways to incorporate both of them into your diet and discuss your individual needs and concerns with your doctor.

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Credit to University Health News

(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)

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