5 Surprising Fun Facts About Sweet Potatoes

In this post: Around the holidays, sweet potatoes are known as the sweet-and-sticky alternative to white potatoes, but they’re so much more than that! Keep reading to find out 5 fun facts about sweet potatoes.5 surprising fun facts about sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are a tradition for most Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner spreads. Unfortunately, for many people, that is the extent to their exposure to these tasty and nutritious vegetables.

I actually spent most of my life thinking I didn’t like sweet potatoes simply because I didn’t like the buttery, sticky, overly sweet dish I had been served during the holidays. As an adult, I’ve learned more about the sweet potato and other ways to prepare it.

Here are five of my favorite fun facts about sweet potatoes–one of my favorite vegetables.

1. They aren’t actually yams.

These naturally sweet and nutritious vegetables are often referred to as yams, but yams and sweet potatoes are actually two completely different species of plant. Sweet potatoes originated in South America, while yams are native to Africa.

Yams are also larger, starchier, and less sweet. True yams can weigh up to 100 pounds and are not typically sold in most American grocery stores. Even though they are different plants, the terms “yam” and “sweet potato” have been used interchangeably, particularly in the South, for much of America’s history.

2. “Yam” comes from an abbreviation of a Senegalese word.

African slaves in the South called the sweet potato “nyami” because it reminded them of the starchy, edible tuber of that name that grew in their homeland. The Senegalese word “nyami” was eventually shortened to the word “yam,” and we’ve been calling them by that name ever since.

3. Sweet potatoes are good for you.

Sweet potatoes are far superior to yams when it comes to nutrition. They are packed with calcium, potassium, and vitamins E, A, and C. With 5 grams of fiber in each ¾ cup serving, sweet potatoes are good for the heart, digestion, and weight management. While the sweet potato is a starchy vegetable and higher in carbohydrates, the fiber helps keep blood sugar from spiking, especially when eaten as part of a balanced meal with protein and other non-starchy vegetables.

4. Don’t store them in the fridge!

When choosing a sweet potato, you want the skin to be a bright uniform color and firm to the touch. Store your sweet potatoes in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place (like a root cellar). Do not store them in the refrigerator, as that will give them a hard center and bad taste. Stored and handled properly, sweet potatoes can last for up to 1-2 months or even longer.

5. They’re very versatile.

When it comes to cooking sweet potatoes, think outside the marshmallow, butter, and brown sugar box. Sweet potatoes are so much more versatile than many realize. Look for recipes, and you will find sweet potatoes can be used in a sweet or savory manner. They can be baked in an oven or microwave like other potatoes. They also taste great added to casseroles, soups, and stews. Mashed sweet potatoes can be substituted for pureed pumpkin in muffin, cake, and cookie recipes. Sweet potatoes make a tasty filling for pie and are often used instead of pumpkin in “pumpkin” pie.

The Best Way to Eat Sweet Potatoes

My personal favorite way to prepare sweet potatoes is to cut them into cubes and toss with olive oil, cumin, salt, and pepper. I then roast them in the oven at around 375 degrees, until they are tender. After I take them out of the oven, I mix them with black beans and a bit of cilantro. This makes a fantastic side dish or a filling for tacos. I love using the leftovers for breakfast. I mix it in with plain oatmeal, eggs, and hot sauce. It makes for a delicious and hearty breakfast on those cold winter mornings.

Sweet potatoes are inexpensive, nutritious, and are versatile for cooking. They are also easy to grow and last a long time when stored properly. No matter how you enjoy your sweet potatoes, no one can deny they are a healthful and colorful addition to your fall and winter menus during the holidays and beyond.

Sarah Wood, the author of this article, is available to speak to groups or hold classes on a variety of health-related topics such as nutrition, physical activity, healthy cooking, stress management, and wellness. To schedule an event or get more information, call 816-279-1691 or email woodsarah@missouri.edu.

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What’s your favorite way to eat sweet potatoes? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Sarah Wood

Sarah Wood is a registered dietitian with a Master's Degree in Applied Health Sciences. Currently, she is a Nutrition and Health Education Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. When taking time for herself, she runs, travels, and creates art.

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