Article – Health Benefits From Eating Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes’ Health Benefits
How sweet it is for your health to eat sweet potatoes! Not only do they taste like dessert, but they provide some surprising health benefits. Many people think about sweet potatoes as being nothing more than plain old potatoes that can tweak our taste buds with some extra flavor. Yet cutting-edge research on sweet potatoes tells us that nothing could be further from the truth as they have so many unique nutritional benefits to offer!
One difficulty in describing the health benefits of sweet potatoes is knowing where to begin. There are a surprising number of nutrient categories responsible for the health benefits of this underappreciated tuber. Among these categories are antioxidants, anti-inflammatory nutrients, and blood sugar-regulating nutrients. Each category brings with it valuable health benefits.
Antioxidant Nutrients in Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes contain a wealth of orange-hued carotenoid pigments. In countries throughout Africa, in India and in the Caribbean, sweet potatoes have been shown to be a highly effective way of providing school age children with sizable amounts of their daily vitamin A. In some studies, sweet potatoes have been shown to be a better source of bioavailable beta-carotene than green leafy vegetables. Because sweet potatoes are available in many countries on a virtual year-round basis, their ability to provide us with a key antioxidant like beta-carotene makes them a standout antioxidant food.
Yet beta-carotene only begins to tell the story of sweet potato antioxidants. Particularly in purple-fleshed sweet potato, antioxidant anthocyanin pigments are abundant. Cyanidins and peonidins are concentrated in the starchy core of part of purple-fleshed sweet potatoes, and these antioxidant nutrients may be even more concentrated in the flesh than in the skin. That’s sweet potatoes have genes (IbMYB1 and IbMYB2) that are specialized for the production of anthocyanin pigments in the fleshy part of the tuber. Ordinary, we have to rely on the skins of foods for this same level of anthocyanin antioxidants. But not in the case of sweet potatoes! Extracts from the highly pigmented and colorful purple-fleshed and purple-skinned sweet potatoes have been shown in research studies to increased the activity of two key antioxidant enzymes—copper/zinc superoxide dismutase (Cu/Zn-SOD) and catalase (CAT).
Recent research has shown that particularly when passing through our digestive tract, sweet potato cyanidins and peonidins and other color-related phytonutrients may be able to lower the potential health risk posed by heavy metals and oxygen radicals. That risk reduction might be important not only for individuals at risk of digestive tract problems but for all persons wanting to reduce the potential risk posed by the presence of heavy metal residues (like small amounts of mercury or cadmium or arsenic) in their diet.
Storage proteins in sweet potato also have important antioxidant properties. These storage proteins—called sporamins—get produced by sweet potato plants whenever the plants are subjected to physical damage. Their ability to help the plants heal from this damage is significantly related to their role as antioxidants. Especially when sweet potato is being digested inside of our gastrointestinal tract, we may get some of these same antioxidant benefits.
Anti-Inflammatory Nutrients in Sweet Potatoes
Anthocyanin and other color-related pigments in sweet potato are equally valuable for their anti-inflammatory health benefits. In the case of inflammation, scientists understand even more about the amazing properties of this tuber. In animal studies, activation of nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB); activation of inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS), and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2); and formation of malondialdehyde (MDA) have all be shown to get reduced following consumption of either sweet potato or its color-containing extracts. Since each of these events can play a key role in the development of unwanted inflammation, their reduction by sweet potato phytonutrients marks a clear role for this food in inflammation-related health problems. In animal studies, reduced inflammation following sweet potato consumption has been shown in brain tissue and nerve tissue throughout the body.
What’s equally fascinating about color-related sweet potato phytonutrients is their impact on fibrinogen. Fibrinogen is one of the key glycoproteins in the body that is required for successful blood clotting. With the help of a coagulation factor called thrombin, fibronogen gets converted into fibrin during the blood clotting process. Balanced amounts of fibrinogen, thrombin and fibrin are a key part of the body’s health and its ability to close off wounds and stop loss of blood. However, excess amounts of these clotting-related molecules may sometimes pose a health risk. For example, excess presence of fibrinogen and fibrin can trigger unwanted secretion of pro-inflammatory molecules (including cytokines and chemokines). In animal studies, too much fibrin in the central nervous system has been associated with breakdown of the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerves and allows them to conduct electrical signals properly. If fibrin excess can trigger unwanted inflammation in nerve tissue and increase breakdown of the myelin wrapping the nerve cells (a process that is usually referred to as demyelination), health problems like multiple sclerosis (in which there is breakdown of the myelin nerve sheath) may be lessened through reduction of excess fibrinogen and/or fibrin. In preliminary animal studies, intake of sweet potato color extracts have been shown to accomplish exactly those results: reduction of inflammation, and simultaneous reduction of fibronogen levels. We look forward to exciting new research in this area of sweet potato’s anti-inflammatory benefits.
Sweet Potatoes’ Potential Improvement of Blood Sugar Regulation
Many people think about starchy root vegetables as a food group that could not possibly be helpful for controlling their blood sugar. That’s because many people realize that food starches can be converted by our digestive tract into simple sugars. If foods are especially concentrated in starch, there can often be a risk of too much simple sugar release in our digestive tract and too much pressure upon our bloodstream to uptake more sugar. (The result in this situation would be an overly quick elevation of our blood sugar level.) What’s fascinating about sweet potatoes is their ability to potentially improve blood sugar regulation—even in persons with type 2 diabetes— in spite of their glycemic index (GI) rating of medium. (Sweet potatoes are one of four WHFoods vegetables that have a GI ranking of medium. The other three vegetables are beets, corn, and leeks.) The 6.6 grams of dietary fiber in a medium sweet potato are definitely a plus in terms of blood sugar regulation, since they help steady the pace of digestion. But recent research has also shown that extracts from sweet potatoes can significantly increase blood levels of adiponectin in persons with type 2 diabetes. Adiponectin is a protein hormone produced by our fat cells, and it serves as an important modifier of insulin metabolism. Persons with poorly-regulated insulin metabolism and insulin insensitivity tend to have lower levels of adiponectin, and persons with healthier insulin metabolism tend to have higher levels. While more research on much larger groups of individuals to further evaluate and confirm these blood sugar regulating benefits, this area of health research is an especially exciting one for anyone who loves sweet potatoes but is nevertheless concerned about healthy blood sugar regulation.
Other Potential Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes
One of the more intriguing nutrient groups provided by sweet potatoes—yet one of the least studied from a health standpoint—are the resin glycosides. These nutrients are sugar-related and starch-related molecules that are unusual in their arrangement of carbohydrate-related components, and also in their inclusion of some non-carbohydrate molecules. In sweet potatoes, researchers have long been aware of one group of resin glycosides called batatins (including batatin I and batatin II). But only recently have researchers discovered a related group of glycosides in sweet potato called batatosides (including batatodide III, batatoside IV, and batatoside V). In lab studies, most of these sweet potato glycosides have been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties. To what extent these carbohydrate-related molecules in sweet potatoes can provide us with health benefits in these same antibacterial and antifungal areas is not yet clear. But we expect to see increasing interest in sweet potato’s batatins and batatosides and their potential to support our health.
Although sweet potatoes may be part of the Thanksgiving tradition, be sure to add these wonderful naturally sweet vegetables to your meals throughout the year; they are some of the most nutritious vegetables around. Sweet potatoes can be found in your local markets year-round, however they are in season in November and December.
While many people lump all potatoes into one category, potatoes can actually be quite different in terms of their taste, flavor, texture, and nutrients. Sweet potatoes are no exception! Sweet potatoes belong to an entirely different food family than either yams or the common potato that is such a large part of the U.S. diet.
In some food families all foods belong not only to the same botanical family and genus but sometimes to the same species as well! For example, both Swiss chard and beets belong to the same botanical family and genus and species. When foods belong to the same family and genus, they are more likely to share commonality in their nutrient composition and health benefits. From this standpoint, potatoes are far more diverse, and when you choose sweet potatoes as a dietary root vegetable, you are getting a truly unique type of potato that is nutritionally different from other types.
Depending upon the variety, of which there are about 400, the skin and flesh of the sweet potato may be almost white, cream, yellow, orange, pink, or deep purple, although white/cream and yellow-orange flesh are most common. Sometimes this root vegetable will be shaped like a potato, being short and blocky with rounded ends, while other times it will be longer with tapered ends.
The intensity of the sweet potato’s yellow or orange flesh color is directly correlated to its beta-carotene content. Our bodies can typically produce vitamin A from the beta-carotene in orange-fleshed sweet potato; this is why this nutrient is often referred to as “Provitamin A.”
Purple-fleshed sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are a fantastic source of anthocyanins (especially peonidins and cyanidins) and have outstanding antioxidant activity. In one study, the antioxidant activity in purple sweet potatoes was 3.2 times higher than that of a type of blueberry! An equally amazing fact about sweet potatoes is the antioxidant capacity of all their parts. Recent research has shown different genes to be at work in the flesh versus skin of the sweet potato producing different concentrations of anthocyanin antioxidants. Even the leaves of the sweet potato plant have been shown to provide important antioxidant benefits and are included in soups in many cuisines. Sweet potatoes can be grouped into two different categories depending upon the texture they have when cooked: some are firm, dry, and mealy, while others are soft and moist. In both types, the taste is starchy and sweet with different varieties having different unique tastes.
Sweet Potatoes and Yams
In the U.S., there is often much confusion between sweet potatoes and yams. They are completely different foods, belonging to different plant families. Sweet potatoes are much more highly available in the U.S. than are yams.
This confusion exists for two reasons. First, as a shopper, it is possible for you to find sweet potatoes and yams that look reasonably alike in terms of size, skin color, and flesh color. Second, government agencies have allowed these terms to be used somewhat interchangeably on labeling, so that you often cannot rely on the grocery store signs to help you determine whether you are looking at a bin full of sweet potatoes or a bin full of yams. For example, in many stores you can find bins that are labeled “Red Garnet Yams” and “Jewel Yams” and the foods in these bins are actually sweet potatoes. Here are some general practical rules that you can follow.
- In most U.S. groceries, you should assume that you are always purchasing a sweet potato, even if the sign says “yams.”Over 1 million sweet potatoes are commercially grown in the U.S. each year, while commercial production of yams in the U.S. is rare.
- Don’t use flesh color to decide whether you are getting a sweet potato or a yam. Both root vegetables come in a variety of colors. Once again, you should assume that you are getting a sweet potato regardless of flesh color.
- If you are specially seeking a true yam (from the plant genus Dioscorea), it might be helpful to visit a more internationally focused store that specializes in foods from tropical countries.
Here is a little more background about the relationship between sweet potatoes and yams.
The name “yam” was adopted from “nyami“—the Fulani (West African) word that means “to eat” and that has traditionally been used to refer to yams. Yams are native to Africa and Asia, and unlike potatoes, they have the potential to grow to a much larger size.
From a science perspective, true yam is a root vegetable belonging to the Dioscoreaceae family, which are monocotyledons (or “monocots” for short, with the prefix “mono” referring to the fact that they have only one embryonic seed leaf). Sweet potatoes belong to the Convolvulaceae or morning glory plant family, are dicotyledons (or “dicots” for short, with the prefix “di” referring to the fact that they have two embryonic seed leaves), and are known by the scientific name ofIpomoea batatas. So as you can see, these two root vegetables come from very different parts of the plant world, even though their names have become so intertwined in the U.S. marketplace.
Reference: whfoods.org/sweet potatoes/yams
AgeInGrace.com/Article – Health Benefits From Eating Sweet Potatoes
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