Sweet potatoes aren’t really potatoes, but they are one of the most widespread and important vegetable crops in the world. With their nutrient-dense qualities, they are a delicious example of food as medicine!
A Tuberous Controversy
The history of sweet potatoes goes back thousands of years and is filled with controversy and intrigue.
Sweet potatoes originated in South America as many as 800,000 years ago! In the 1500s, European explorers brought the plant both to West Africa and Europe. It was largely assumed that this was the first time sweet potatoes had left the South American continent. But when Captain James Cook arrived in the Polynesian Islands in the 18th century, the sweet potato was already being abundantly cultivated. For many years the sweet potato was offered as evidence of Polynesian and South American pre-Columbian contact. But a DNA study published earlier this year calls that into question.
Using historical botanical samples as many as 250 years old, researchers determined that the sweet potatoes in Polynesia split from their South American counterparts at least 100,000 years ago. In other words, sweet potatoes were in the Polynesian Islands long before people. While this doesn’t ultimately answer the question about early Polynesian travels, it does cast doubt on sweet potatoes being proof of that contact.1
What’s in a Name? Sweet Potatoes vs. Potatoes vs. Yams
Although similar in appearance, sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) aren’t closely related to russet potatoes (Solanum tuberosum). Sweet potatoes are actually more closely related to morning glories, as they are in the same family, Convolvulaceae, while potatoes are in the nightshade family or Solanaceae. People who are sensitive to the nightshade family can eat sweet potatoes in place of potatoes.
Yams and sweet potatoes are also not closely related, although there is a lot of confusion around this as many sweet potatoes are commonly mislabeled as yams.
While there are many different types of sweet potatoes worldwide, two distinct species are commonly found in grocery stores. One has a firmer texture and golden skin and pale flesh. The other has a softer texture when cooked and a darker red/brown skin with orange flesh. Sometimes grocery stores label the lighter variety as sweet potatoes and the orange-fleshed variety as yams.
However, true yams aren’t sweet potatoes! Yams are a tuberous vegetable that originated in Asia and Africa. They are much drier and starchier than sweet potatoes. Although they are becoming more common in specialty and international stores, they aren’t nearly as readily found in grocery stores. The botanical name for yams is Dioscorea alata.
Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are filled with phytonutrients, antioxidants and vitamins, including large amounts of beta carotene, vitamin C and manganese. They are also a good source of fiber.2
Although they are sweet and starchy, sweet potatoes have a low glycemic index and are well tolerated by people with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
To get the most nutrients when eating sweet potatoes, steam them instead of boil them, and eat the skins of organic sweet potatoes.3 Non-organic sweet potatoes may be treated with dyes or waxes.
Sweet Potato Pie vs. Pumpkin Pie
For many decades in the United States, sweet potatoes were mainly reserved for Thanksgiving dishes like candied yam casserole or sweet potato pie. This wasn’t always the case! Sweet potatoes are readily grown in warmer climates and were a common household garden vegetable leading up and through the Second World War. After the war, people began to purchase their food rather than grow it, and the cheaper russet potato became more popular than sweet potatoes.4
While sweet potatoes have retained some of their popularity in Southern comfort food, it’s just recently that they have significantly risen in popularity throughout the United States. Some point to specialty low-carb and low-glycemic diets as being responsible for increasing more widespread popularity. Worldwide, sweet potatoes are an important crop and are eaten widely in Asia, Angola, Nigeria and Ethiopia.5
In regards to pies, historically sweet potatoes were more popular in the South where they were easier to grow, whereas pumpkins were more acclimated and popular in the northern climates. I’ve recently learned that people have very strong feelings when it comes to pumpkin versus sweet potato pie! Just this week we were planning our Thanksgiving menu and it was quickly apparent that having one or the other just wouldn’t do! Rest assured, both will be gracing our table.
From Fries to Dessert
For the past handful of years, our farming friends have been growing abundant crops of sweet potatoes in their green house. While normally better suited to a warmer climate, they’ve created the perfect conditions for these sweet orange vegetables and, as a result, we have had a generous amount to last us through the winter.
At first we kept our recipes on the savory side and tried our best to prove that you can’t ever eat too many sweet potato fries. And while we still haven’t found the upper limit on fries, we also decided to branch out and began making sweet potato pie. We perfected this recipe throughout last winter, bringing updated versions to potlucks where they were devoured with smiles.
Sweet potatoes and sweet potato fries are a delicious food that deserve more than just a holiday showcase!
Spiced Sweet Potato Pie
Sweet and creamy, this not-too-sweet dessert is loaded with flavor and nutrients! This version contains the same spices you commonly see in sweet potato pie, but has significantly less added sugar in the form of honey. This is a delicious dessert that can also stand in for breakfast.
Look for the creamy orange-fleshed sweet potato variety for this recipe. Practically any pie shell of your choosing will work here, from homemade pastry pie doughs to store-bought pie shells to graham cracker pie crusts. For this version, we made a gluten-free almond flour pie shell.
What you’ll need…
- 1 pound sweet potatoes (2 medium ones)
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 (9-inch) unbaked pie crust (see our recipe below)
- Whipped cream (optional)
- Begin by boiling or steaming the whole sweet potatoes until soft, about 45 minutes. While the potatoes are cooking, you can make the crust (see our recipe below).
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- When the sweet potatoes are done, run them under cold water until they can be handled by hand. Remove the skin.
- In a large bowl, mix together the cooked sweet potatoes with the melted butter, honey, coconut milk, eggs, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla. Mix until smooth.
- Pour the sweet potato filling into the prepared pie crust and bake for 70 minutes.
- When done, the pie will still be a little jiggly. Let it cool completely before serving and serve with optional whipped cream.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Gluten-Free Almond Flour Pie Crust
- 2 cups almond flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 4 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Whisk together the almond flour, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl.
- In a small bowl, mix together the melted butter, egg and honey.
- Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture and stir until well combined.
- Press the dough in a 9-inch pie plate with your hands, then use the back of a large, wet spoon to smooth it out evenly. Nut-based crusts tend to brown much more readily than those made with other flours, so do not spread the dough onto the rim.
Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie crust
Now I’d love to hear from you!
Are you also obsessed with sweet potato fries?
Do you prefer sweet potato pie over pumpkin pie?
I’d love to hear how you are using this golden vegetable!
Let me know in the comments below.
- Muñoz-Rodríguez, Pablo, Tom Carruthers, John R I Wood, Bethany R M Williams, Kevin Weitemier, Brent Kronmiller, David Ellis, and others. “Reconciling Conflicting Phylogenies in the Origin of Sweet Potato and Dispersal to Polynesia.” Current biology : CB 28, no. 8 (2018): doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.03.020. ↩
- “Sweet Potatoes.” The World’s Healthiest Foods. Accessed November 13, 2018. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=64. ↩
- Robinson, Jo. Eating on the wild side: the missing link to optimum health. New York: Little Brown & Co, 2014. ↩
- Husted, Kristofor. “Why America Is Growing The Most Sweet Potatoes Since WWII.” NPR. January 19, 2017. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/01/19/510436364/why-america-is-growing-the-most-sweet-potatoes-since-wwii. ↩
- “Which Country Consumes the Most Sweet Potato in the World?” Index Box. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.indexbox.io/blog/which-country-eats-the-most-sweet-potato-in-the-world. ↩