They look like orange-tinged potatoes, yet taste like dessert due to their natural sweetness. While most people think sweet potatoes are nothing more than a healthy and interesting replacement for potatoes, they actually offer a lot of benefits for your health — from helping minimize your risk of obesity1 to inhibiting the growth of cancer cells, to name a few.2 By learning how to cook sweet potatoes properly, you can maximize their flavor and preserve the valuable nutrients they have to offer.
But first — what is a sweet potato?
The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) belongs to the Convolvulaceae plant family, which includes other flowering plants like water spinach, the morning glory and chokeweed. It’s native to tropical parts of the Americas, from the Caribbean to the southeastern U.S., having been cultivated there for at least 5,000 years.3 Relics of sweet potatoes have even been unearthed in Peruvian caves in South America. These relics were said to be 10,000 years old, which makes them one of the oldest vegetables known to mankind.4
About 400 sweet potato varieties exist, and they differ by the color of their skin and flesh. Their hues can vary, ranging from cream, yellow and orange to pink or purple. Sweet potato’s benefits come from an impressive array of nutrients, which include potassium, protein, vitamins C and A, sodium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.5 In the U.S., more than half of commercially grown sweet potatoes hail from the southern states, particularly North Carolina.6
Sweet potatoes versus yams
Many people often confuse sweet potatoes with yams, which are starchy root vegetables that actually belong to the Dioscoreaceae family7 and are native to Africa and Asia.8 According to The Kitchn, yams, compared to sweet potatoes, are drier and starchier and their skin is bark-like, with a black or brown color. When peeled, the skin is either white, purple or a reddish color.9
True yams aren’t actually common in the U.S., but what makes it confusing is that U.S. grocery stores label “soft” sweet potato varieties as “yams,” while “firm” sweet potatoes retain their name.10 So when you’re out shopping, make sure you confirm that you’re buying real yams.