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Sweet sweet potato

Published:Saturday | January 30, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The Eustace is one of many varieties of sweet potato grown in Jamaica.

Heather Little-White, Contributor

The sweet potato is probably the most widely used ground provision because of its taste, versatility and nutritional value. Sweet potatoes are of the Morning Glory convolvulaceae family. The sweet potato is known as batata, the Indian word for sweet potato.

The origin of sweet potatoes is South America (Peru and Ecuador). In the 17th century, potatoes became popular in Europe as a crop during famine. Today, sweet potato is a popular food in the southern United States, where they have been cultivated since the 16th century. Sweet potato is part of the staple diet in many countries.

Sweet potato vs yam

Yam is an adoption of the African word 'nayami', meaning a starchy, edible root. Very often, sweet potatoes are confused with yams and are actually so named in the United States and other countries. The confusion started in the 1930s when growers introduced a new variety of a very sweet, orange-fleshed sweet potato and called it the Louisiana yam to differentiate it from the white sweet potato.

Though the terms are used interchangeably, yams, so named in America, are actually sweet potatoes known by their moist texture and orange flesh. The sweet potato, a tuberous root of the plant compared to yams, are rhizomes with creeping stems that run on the surface of the soil. Rough, scaly skins are typical to yams, which have a long, cylindrical shape, compared to sweet potatoes, which have thin, smooth skins. The feel of the cooked sweet potato is moist, with a sweet taste, while the yam is dry, with a starch taste. Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture mandated that in labelling the word 'yam', it should be always be accompanied by 'sweet potato'.

Popular varieties include jewel, with deep orange flesh and reddish brown skin. There is the yellow Jersey, a dry type which is less sweet than the jewel type and containing more fibre.

Purchasing and storage

Some people get confused in purchasing sweet potatoes. It is best to select potatoes which are uniform in size, with thickness in the middle, tapering off at both ends. They should also be free from blemishes, cracks, bruises, soft spots or rot. A decayed spot on the potato gives the potato a bad flavour, even when the bad part is removed. Sweet potatoes should be not be refrigerated but stored in a dark, dry, cool and well-ventilated place where they can last for two weeks or more. Temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit will cause sweet potatoes to sprout or become woody. However, refrigeration turns the natural sugar to starch and alters the flavour. Sweet potatoes are delicate and should be handled with care to prevent bruising.


Nutritionally, sweet potato is an excellent source of calories, especially at a time when food is limited. The sweet potato is rich in high-complex carbohydrate. Sprouted potatoes should be avoided, as starch is converted to sugar during sprouting. The sweet potato contains only 141 calories, making it valuable for persons who want to watch their weight.


The sweet potato is not without a downside. It produces a very unusual food allergy, as a mother discovered when she gave her child pureed sweet potato as part of weaning. After the child ate it, she vomited all of it. The cases of sweet potato food allergy are rare and research into the allergen is continuing.


Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A and a good source of iron, calcium, potassium and vitamin C, B6, riboflavin, copper, pantothetic acid and folic acid. One baked sweet potato (3 1/2-ounce serving) provides over 8,800 IU of vitamin A or about twice the recommended daily allowance. Sweet potatoes with a deep orange colour are very rich in vitamin A.


As a nutritious root, sweet potato vegetable provides 42 per cent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin C, six per cent of the RDA for calcium, 10 per cent of the RDA for iron, and eight per cent of the RDA for thiamine for healthy adults. It is low in sodium and is a good source of fibre and other important vitamins and minerals. The sweet potato is an ideal food for the health-conscious person. A complex-carbohydrate food source, it provides beta-carotene, which may be a factor in reducing the risk of certain cancers. (


Sweet potatoes are eaten cooked and may be stored up to one week in the refrigerator after cooking. Potato dishes will freeze well so the sweet potato is useful in saving time and energy. The sweetness of the potato makes it versatile, and it is used in a wide variety of dishes, both savoury and sweet, and go well with cinnamon, honey, lime, ginger, coconut and nutmeg. They can be enjoyed in baked desserts and quick breads, puddings and custards, casseroles, stews or croquettes. The versatile sweet potato is ideal to blend with herbs, spices and flavourings, producing delicious dishes of all types - from processed baby foods to the main dishes, salads, breads and desserts. Sweet potatoes add valuable, appetising nutrients and colour to any meal.

[ Southern Foods]


Baked potatoes are popular, and freshly baked sweet potatoes are delicious and nutritious. You need only to add a pat of butter or serve it plain. Resist the use of mayonnaise and cream cheese.

To bake a sweet potato, rub a little fat or oil over clean, dry sweet potatoes of uniform size. Greasing potatoes before baking makes them easy to peel. Place on baking sheet and bake at 400°F until soft, 30 to 50 minutes, depending on size.

Deep-fat French-fried sweet potatoes: Pare and cut into lengthwise strips, about 1/2 inch thick. Heat oil in fryer to 365°F. Keep fry basket in fat as it heats.

Raise basket and add enough sweet potato strips to cover bottom of basket. Lower basket slowly into hot fat. If fat bubbles much, lift and lower basket until bubbling subsides. Fry until sweet potato strips are brown and tender. Remove from hot oil and drain onto paper towels. Sprinkle with salt, if desired. Spread sweet potatoes on baking sheet and place in a warm oven while others are being cooked.

Charcoal-broiled sweet potatoes: Rub a little fat over clean sweet potato skins. Wrap double foil loosely around sweet potatoes. Cook on coal for about 45 minutes. Keep warm on edge of grill.

Microwave Sweet Potatoes: For best results, choose uniform-size sweet potatoes. Pierce washed sweet potatoes with a fork. Place on paper towel on shelf of microwave oven one inch apart. Turn sweet potatoes over and rearrange after half of cooking time. Cook on high-power level. Cooking time will vary, depending on the number of sweet potatoes - anywhere from 4 minutes (1 potato) to 20 minutes (5 potatoes.) Sweet potatoes may still feel firm when done. Let stand 5 minutes to soften.

Undoubtedly, the sweet potato has enhanced menu selections and created meaningful and nutritious meal solutions for family and food enthusiasts.

Heather Little-White, PhD, is a nutrition and lifestyle consultant in Kingston. Send comments to or fax 922-6223.

Useful hints

  • To prepare sweet potatoes for cooking, it is advisable to wash them before use.
  • Before cooking sweet potatoes, scrub skin and trim off any bruised or woody portions.
  • Sweet potatoes can be baked, boiled, fried, broiled, canned or frozen. They can also be cooked in the microwave oven.
  • Bake a large pan of sweet potatoes at the same time. This saves time and energy. Freeze for later use or store the sweet potatoes in the refrigerator for seven to 10 days.
  • Frozen sweet potatoes may be substituted for the fresh form in any recipe calling for cooked sweet potatoes as the starting point.
  • If you are cutting calories, serve a plain sweet potato, cut down on margarine or butter and use skim milk or unsweetened orange juice as liquid when you prepare mashed sweet potatoes. It is what you add to the sweet potato that increases calories.