by Island Expert Frantz François-Haugrin
Known for centuries in the beautiful Caribbean islands, the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas, L.), grows very easily in tropical and subtropical regions, and its nutritional value is one of nature’s greatest gifts to humanity.
Even though the sweet potato has been cultivated in India for centuries, in fact, it originated in the Americas, where it developed in two different zones: the first, from the Yucatan to the Orinoco in Venezuela, and the second, between Peru and the Equator. Archeological studies in Peru show that the sweet potato existed 8000 years ago!
According to Blaise-Gérard Descas, the Martinican author of “Jardin Familial Créole” (the Creole family garden), you can grow sweet potatoes from cuttings, and start to harvest them after four months. The sweet potatoes themselves can be kept in a vegetable crisper inside your refrigerator for about a month, or in a place that is well ventilated and not too hot. In certain urban zones of Japan people have even successfully grown sweet potatoes in rooftop gardens atop high-rise apartments.
These tubers are generally elongated with thin skin. Depending on the specific variety, the skin color can be beige, brown, yellow, orange, red, or even purple. The flesh or inside of the sweet potato can also be all those colors, and additionally white. The sweet potato along with its leaves is a fundamental dietary staple in many tropical regions, and offers better nutrients compared with other tubers (such as the regular potato).
For those concerned with their health and diet, the research on sweet potatoes will be quite interesting. Dr. Henry Joseph, president of a Guadeloupean association for promoting medicinal plants, notes that “the sweet potato possesses a Glycemic Index of 50, which places it in the category of low glycemic index foods. Also, it has demonstrated health benefits. Its nutritional properties depend on its flesh color. For example, yellow varieties will be richer in Vitamins A and C and protect against stomach cancer.”
The sweet potato contains an array of antioxidants (Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Anthocyanins, and Polyphenols – also found in green tea). It also has vitamins B2, B5, and B6, along with the minerals Copper and Manganese. What are the benefits of eating sweet potatoes? Would you believe they include protecting against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cognitive decline?
So, my advice, both for you and for your family: use the sweet potato as often as possible in your meals, whether you eat it raw or cooked, from salads to soups, purees to gratins, pies, and cakes, and of course, incredibly delicious sweet potato fries…
Thank you, Frantz, for this informative piece! We did not realize that the sweet potato not only tastes good, but also can be good for you. It's great to learn more about amazing island nature from our Island Expert on Martinique.
(Photos: 1. Sweet Potato Pie, BNilsen, 2. Jo planting sweet potatoes, Marvin Smith, 3. Sweet Potato, Natalie Maynor, 4. Sweet Potato Fries, Stacy Spensley, all from Flickr)