Potato, potawto? Tomato, tomawto? Isn’t that how the old song goes? Either way you pronounce the potato part, the sweet potato has a lot going for it.

Since November is National Sweet Potato Month and many of us will be eating sweet potatoes in some form for Thanksgiving, we should celebrate them for their nutritional qualities.

The sweet potato is an underground tuber, with pointed ends and red, brown or yellow skin. It is available throughout the year in the grocery store, though is at its least expensive and best quality from October to January. It comes in a variety of colors from red to yellow, white to purple, and violet to pink. It is good fried, baked, boiled, grilled, steamed or roasted. It is good used in savory dishes (i.e., soups) or as a dessert (i.e., sweet potato pie). Mashed sweet potato can be substituted for pumpkin in pies, breads and muffins. The tuber lends itself well to recipes that include spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.

Sweet potatoes should be stored in a cool, dry place and used within two weeks. When choosing sweet potatoes, look for tubers that are firm, smooth-skinned and free of soft spots, cuts or blemishes. Soft areas, scabby areas or brown spots may indicate spoilage or tough, inedible flesh. One pound of raw, fresh sweet potato equals three cups shredded, cubed or sliced sweet potato, which equals 1¾ cups cooked, mashed sweet potato. According to www.foodhero.org, storing raw sweet potatoes in the refrigerator can cause a hard center and an unpleasant taste. Scrub sweet potatoes under cool, running water just before using.

According to Healthline website writer Adda Hjarnadottir, MS, RDN, the sweet potato is rich in antioxidants and high in fiber, which aids in digestion. The sweet potato is low in fat and relatively low in calories. A half-cup of sweet potato contains about 125 calories. It is considered a nutrient-dense food, which means it contains more nutrients relative to, or compared to, its calorie content. It is sweet tasting, owing to its starch and sugar content. What contributes to an increase in calories of the sweet potato is the butter, maple syrup/brown sugar and marshmallows of the typical American holiday recipe used to prepare them.

Sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene, the element that accounts for the vegetable’s orange color (carrots are also high in beta-carotene for the same reason), which the body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for eye health. Vitamin C is also found in sweet potatoes and is a vitamin that helps heal cuts and bruises and is important for gum health.

Potassium, a mineral which may help with heart health; manganese, important for growth and metabolism; vitamin B6, which helps convert food into energy; and vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant, which may help protect against cell damage; are all found in a sweet potato.

Sweet potatoes are well-tolerated by most people. However, they are considered fairly high in oxalates, a substance that may increase the risk of kidney stones in some people. Therefore, people who are prone to kidney stones may wish to consult with their primary care provider to check on their intake of sweet potatoes and see how much, if any, is right for them.

The sweet potato originated in South and Central America and is a tropical member of the morning glory family. It is one of the oldest foods known to mankind, dating back more than 5,000 years. A sweet potato is easy to sprout and makes an interesting house plant. According to www.specialtyproduce.com, there are hundreds of varieties of sweet potatoes grown throughout the world. Domestically, there are two varieties usually grown in the United States. Production of sweet potatoes in the United States primarily is in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina.

By the way, a sweet potato and a yam are not related; it is a misnomer that they are. Though people use them interchangeably, they are two different species. Yams are part of the lily family and originated in Africa and Asia. There are about 600 varieties of yams. Yams are more starchy tasting, and some can get very large, growing up to 5 feet in length. You may find a tuber in the grocery store labeled a “garnet yam.” This is a dark-skinned sweet potato.

Either way you pronounce your sweet potato — potato or potawto — don’t call the whole thing off and enjoy them as a regular part of a healthy diet.

For recipes or information on sweet potatoes, go to www.foodhero.org.

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Ann Bloom lives in Enterprise and has worked for the OSU Extension Service for 15 years as a nutrition educator. She studied journalism and education at Washington State University.

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