Sweet potato or kumara (Ipomoea batatas) is part of the root Convolvulaceae family that includes beets, carrots, parsnip, turnip, rutabaga and others.
Ipomoea batatas plant is a herbaceous perennial vine, bearing alternate heart-shaped or palmately lobed leaves and medium-sized sympetalous flowers. The edible tuberous root is tapered and long, with a smooth skin whose color ranges between orange, yellow, red, brown, beige and purple. Its flesh ranges from beige through red, white, pink, violet, purple, orange and yellow. The varieties with white or pale yellow flesh are less moist and sweet than those with pink, red or orange flesh.
In Chile, Mexico, Peru, Central America and the Philippines, it is known as camote, derived from the Nahuatl word camotli. In Venezuela, Argentina, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic it is called batata.
Its origin is thought to be in either South America or Central America. In Central America, the sweet potato was domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. In South America, there are remnants of Ipomoea batatas that date as far back as 8,000 BC. Christopher Columbus took them to Europe after his first voyage to the New World in 1492.
Currently, they are grown all across the American continent, as well as Polynesia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and China.
North Carolina is the leading producer of sweet potatoes in the United States, producing about 40% of the national supply.
They should not be confused with yams, another starchy root widely grown in Western Africa. Yams are indeed larger in size and can weigh up to 120 pounds and two meters in length.
Nutritional facts of sweet potatoes (kumara)
Besides simple starches, they are rich in dietary fiber, complex carbohydrates and beta-carotene (a provitamin A carotenoid, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a large one contains more than 100 % of the daily recommended intake). In addition, kumara contains other micro-nutrients, such as: vitamin B5, B6, C, E, minerals include iron, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, copper, selenium, calcium, manganese.
The different colors of sweet potatoes also indicate the variety of antioxidants they contain. The purple kind has a type of antioxidants called anthocyanins, while the orange ones get their color from the beta-carotene.
Even the leaves of the kumara have more minerals and beneficial benefits than other tubular vegetables. Some consider that the leaves are even healthier than the potato itself, with higher content of folic acid, iron, potassium, vitamins C and K, while having a lower sodium rate.
Health benefits of sweet potato
Boosts the immune system
They contain high amounts of vitamin D, which is necessary for the immune system and overall health at this time of year. Both a hormone and a vitamin, vitamin D is mainly made in our bodies as a result of getting adequate sunlight. You may have heard about seasonal affective disorder, which is associated to inadequate sunlight and therefore a vitamin D deficiency. Additionally, vitamin D plays an essential role in our moods and energy levels. It also helps build healthy nerves, bones, heart, skin and teeth, and it supports the thyroid gland.
Vitamin B6 is important in breaking down a compound called homocysteine, which contributes to hardening of the blood vessels and arteries. Furthermore, vitamin B6 from the potatoes helps keep the walls of these important blood passageways healthy and flexible, which allows blood to flow freely.
Moreover, they contain high amounts of potassium, which plays a crucial role in lowering blood pressure by ridding the body of excess sodium (salt) and regulating fluid balance. It is also an important electrolyte that maintains normal function of the central nervous system and brain, and helps regulate the natural rhythm of the heart.
They are usually abundant with folic acid, which is very important for a healthy fetal cell and the growth and development of tissue. Pregnant women, as well as breast feeding mothers, should include them in their diet.
Good for diabetics
Recent research suggests they may reduce episodes of low blood sugar and insulin resistance in people with diabetes. In addition, the high content of fiber in sweet potatoes makes a big difference too. Studies have shown that type 1 diabetics who consume high-fiber diets have lower blood glucose levels, while type 2 diabetics may have improved lipids, blood sugar and insulin levels. One medium kumara provides about six grams of fiber (skin on).
In 2004, a study conducted by Dr Berhhard Ludvikat at the University of Vienna and published in the „Diabetes Care” journal, revealed that type 2 diabetic patients treated with sweet potato had important decreases in fasting blood glucose levels and overall improvement in glucose control.
You know you need them to fuel your workout and long runs, but did you know that plain, mashed sweet potatoes make an excellent mid-run fuel? A 100 g serving of baked potato, or approximately 1/2 cup, contains 21 g of carbohydrates. Because our body breaks carbs into sugar, you want to choose high-fiber carbs, which take longer to break down and provide more lasting energy.
Their rich orange color indicates that they are high in carotenoids, such as beta carotene and other carotenoids, which is the precursor to vitamin A in your body. As antioxidants, carotenoids are helpful for protecting vision, combating cellular damage and boost our immunity to diseases. Caretenoids can increase the response of antibodies to antigens, improving resistance to and resolution of infections – especially viral infections. They also support the formation of white blood cells, called „natural killer cells”, which have the capacity to recognize and destroy cancer cells.
Smokers’ best friend
They may even protect cigarette smokers and those who live with them from emphysema by virtue of its vitamin A, as cigarette smoke creates a deficiency of this vitamin. This deficiency may be one of the causes of emphysema (a progressive disease of the lungs). Quitting smoking would be ideal, but eating plenty of sweet potatoes while you work on it may save your life.
They contain absolutely no fats, but they will still make you feel full as they are rich in fiber.
Because of its high nutrient density, you are bound to benefit from at least a few of these health benefits given by consuming this root vegetable.