Sweet potatoes are a favorite at most Thanksgiving tables, especially when dressed with brown sugar and pecans or marshmallows. Although those may not be healthiest way to enjoy them, sweet potatoes are a nutritious option for adding a starch to a meal. Most weeks, sweet potatoes are on my shopping list because they can be cooked in the microwave in a matter of minutes which is so much faster than boiling pasta or simmering a pot of quinoa. Curious to learn more about this bright spud? Let’s dive in!
Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams
Sweet potatoes are often confused with yams, probably because they are often labeled as yams in the grocery store. What’s the difference? Yams are native to Asia and Africa and have white, purple, or reddish flesh. They are actually difficult to find in the US and are not even related to sweet potatoes. So, when you see yams in the store they are actually sweet potatoes. That’s right. Although they are all sweet potatoes, some are labeled as “yams” in the store. The label just differentiates between the two varieties of sweet potatoes grown in the US: firm and soft. Firm sweet potatoes have golden skin and a lighter flesh and are labeled “sweet potatoes” in the store. Soft sweet potatoes have a copper skin and deep orange flesh and are labeled “yams” in the store. So, if you want to make mashed sweet potatoes, you should be buying yams. However, you are buying a variety of sweet potato no matter the label in the store.
White Potatoes vs. Sweet Potatoes
I often have patients ask me if sweet potatoes are healthier than regular white russet potatoes. Both varieties are similar in calories, total carbohydrates, fiber, and potassium. However, sweet potatoes offer much more vitamin A (due to their bright color). So if sweet potatoes will work with the recipe you have in mind to prepare, I typically choose them over white russet potatoes since they offer so much vitamin A.
Sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of beta-carotene, ie. Vitamin A. In fact, one sweet potato may provide anywhere from 200% to more than 300% of your daily needs for Vitamin A depending on the size of the potato or serving. Vitamin A is important for eye health, blood clotting, and maintaining a healthy immune system. Sweet potatoes are also a good source of potassium and vitamin B6. They are relatively low in calories too, with only about 120 calories per sweet potato.
Cooking with Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are relatively versatile in the kitchen. You can typically use sweet potatoes in the same way you would use white russet potatoes. Some of my favorite ways to enjoy sweet potatoes include mashed or baked. I’ve also used them instead of regular potatoes in breakfast hash. With a little effort, you can make baked sweet potato fries or even chips. You can also add the flesh of a baked sweet potato into a smoothie for a healthy dose of vitamin A and other nutrients.
Deborah Davis MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian who practices clinical dietetics in Chicago, Illinois. She shares practical nutrition tips and healthy recipes on her personal blog, Dietitian Debbie Dishes. In her free time, you’ll likely find Deborah in the kitchen, camera and spatula in hand, developing recipes for her blog and freelance pieces. You can also connect with Deborah on Twitter and Instagram.