Sweet Potato


I. batatas

The flowers of the Sweet Potato plant

The sweet potato (I. batatas) is cultivated around the world for its distinctively orange starchy storage root. It is a member of the Convolvulaceae family, which is commonly known as the "morning glory" family. This family is notable for its trumpet-like flowers, which have five sepals and five fused petals. It is interesting to note that, while there are over 1,000 different species in this plant family, the sweet potato is the only one that is grown around the world as a crop.

The sweet potato is not closely related to what one may think of as the common potato (Solanum tuberosum). Unlike potato, where the tuber, or underground stem, is eaten, the most consumed part of a sweet potato is the storage root. The leaves of the plant can be eaten as well. In spite of how they may be advertised in American grocery stores, sweet potatoes are not, in fact, yams. True yams are tuberous vegetables that are grown primarily in Africa; they do not share too many similarities with the sweet potato.

It is believed that sweet potatoes were first cultivated somewhere in Central or South America, possibly as far back as 5,000 years ago. Today, sweet potatoes are grown all over the world in tropical and warm climates, as they do not tolerate frost well. They are especially prevalent in the growing fields and diets of various Pacific Islands and Asian countries.

Distribution of Sweet Potato growth in United States
Sweet Potato Production around the World

There are actually many other colors of sweet potato than orange. Sweet potatoes truly represent a rainbow of nutrition. They can be found with red, pink, yellow, and even purple flesh. They are used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes around the world, from sweet potato pie and sweet potato fries in America, to serving as pizza toppings in Korea. In some impoverished countries, sweet potatoes cost less than rice, which has led to a whole range of interesting and nutritious dishes.
Japanese Pastry made with yellow and purple sweet potatoes

The colorful nature of sweet potatoes is pleasant on the eyes, not just through looks, but because most varieties contain beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A (which contributes to retinal well-being). They also contain complex carbohydrates, high levels of vitamins B6 and C, manganese, potassium, and dietary fiber. The darker the color flesh in an orange sweet potato means higher levels of beta-carotene, which means that the more colorful this particular vegetable is, the healthier it is.