The sweet potato invokes thoughts of holiday cheer for many Americans. While sweet potatoes certainly boast a strong holiday connection (Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah, and Easter), this root crop also remains a popular vegetable year-round, especially in the southern United States, where the majority are produced. Sweet potatoes are not yams, and few true yams are grown in the U.S. Yams in the U.S. are actually sweet potatoes with relatively moist texture and orange flesh. Although the terms are generally used interchangeably, the USDA requires that the label “yam” always be accompanied by “sweet potato.”

The versatile sweet potato is ideal fare for the health-conscious food consumer. With the ever-growing interest in health and natural foods, the sweet potato is quickly finding its place in the family weekly diet. From processed baby foods to main dishes, casseroles, salads, breads and desserts, sweet potatoes add valuable, appetizing nutrients and color to any meal. They have been called a “nutritional powerhouse” – frequently ranked among the most nutritious of all vegetables. Because of their orange/yellow color, they are very high in beta carotene (higher than carrots) which may be a factor in reducing the risk of certain cancers. Sweet potatoes contain carotenoids, copper, and dietary fiber; provide a substantial amount of vitamin C; are a good source of vitamin B6, and provide small amounts of several other vitamins and minerals such as potassium, manganese, and folic acid. They rank much lower on the glycemic index scale than white potatoes; therefore, even carbohydrate-sensitive individuals can include these good carbs in their diets.

This holiday season, enjoy the healthy benefits of sweet potatoes: forego the butter and sugar, which adds unnecessary fat and calories, and use simple, healthier preparations for an elegant and delicious side dish. Consider baking (about 350ยบ F.) until tender, and serve whole, cubed or mashed; no added sugar should be needed as this method brings out their natural sweetness. Sweet potatoes can be baked, boiled, fried, broiled, canned, frozen or microwaved. For further cutting calories, use skim milk or unsweetened orange juice as liquid when you prepare mashed sweet potatoes. They can also be used in a wide variety of recipes such as green salads, casseroles, pasta sauces, dipping vegetables (fresh-cut sticks), soups, stews, and stir fry. To reduce calories in your favorite sweet potato recipe, experiment with the recipe by reducing the sugar or fat by using the next lower measure on the measuring cup.

Try something new, healthy and nutritious with sweet potatoes/yams this holiday season, giving thanks to the Incas of South America and Mayans of Central America, who reportedly experimented with this tropical vegetable; and, to Columbus who observed the natives doing the same, during his expeditions to the West Indies. It is a vegetable which can take a prominent place in “The Whole Foods Diet,” which you will find on the Natural Cures website. Enjoy!