© Julie Feinstein | Dreamstime.com
Known as America’s favorite vegetable, potatoes are beloved for their versatility, their compatibility with other foods, and their ability to be transformed into two of America’s favorite junk foods. And although sweet potatoes aren’t as popular, they’re perceived to be a healthier alternative to white potatoes because of their lower calorie and carb count. But are sweet potatoes really healthier than white potatoes? Or is it the other way around? Let’s take a detailed look at the health benefits of sweet potatoes vs. potatoes.
Sweet Potato vs. Potato: The Nutritional Facts
According to the USDA, one medium baked sweet potato with skin contains 103 calories, 2.29 grams of protein, 0.27 grams of fat, 23.6 grams of carbohydrates, 3.8 grams of fiber and 7.39 grams of sugar. Just one serving will give you more than 400 percent of your daily vitamin A requirement; it’s also high in vitamins C and B, potassium, and choline.
A medium baked white potato with skin, on the other hand, contains 115 calories, 2.49 grams of protein, 0.06 grams of fat, 26.71 grams of carbohydrates, 4.6 grams of fiber, and 0.81 grams of sugar. It’s also rich in vitamins C and B, as well as potassium.
While white potatoes are lower in fat and sugar, calories and carbs in a sweet potato are lower. And while sweet potatoes contain more vitamin A and vitamin C, white potatoes contain more protein and fiber. So, which one’s the winner?
Sweet Potato vs. Potato: Their Origins and History
First, let’s look the origins and history of these two vegetables. The Incas in Peru, between 8,000 BC and 5,000 BC, were the first to cultivate potatoes. According to PotatoGoodness.com, the Spanish conquistadors brought the tuber plants to Europe in 1536, and they were introduced to Ireland in 1589.
The Europeans then introduced the potato to North America, where they spread slowly throughout the northern colonies. Because potatoes resembled plants from the nightshade family, people were slow to warm up to this nutritious vegetable, so it wasn’t until the 1800s that they became a popular food.
By now, there are more than 200 varieties of potatoes available throughout the United States, and each is placed in one of seven categories: russet, red, white, yellow, blue/purple, fingering, and petite. Another 4,000 edible potato varieties can be found primarily in South America.
When it comes to the origins of sweet potatoes, it’s important to note that technically, they aren’t actually potatoes. Sweet potatoes are from the morning glory plant family, while the white potato is from the Solanum (nightshade) tuberosum family. (Yams are often associated with these two vegetables; see sidebar for more details.)
DID YOU KNOW…?
Since sweet potatoes are unrelated to white potatoes, the two should not be used as substitutes when cooking, The Old Farmer’s Almanac tells us. See Sweet Potato Facts and Benefits.
Like white potatoes, sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America, but according to NPR.org, prehistoric remnants were found in Polynesia between 1000 AD and 1100 AD. How they got there is still a bit of a mystery. But Christopher Columbus took a liking to sweet potatoes during his voyages to the New World in 1492 and took some home to grow in Europe, where they gained popularity and spread throughout the continent.
In all, there are 6,500 sweet potato varieties, with skin colors varying from white to red and flesh colors from orange to purple. The orange-fleshed varieties are most popular in the U.S. and include Nemagold, Centennial, and Southern Delite.
GROW YOUR OWN POTATOES
Ever thought about trying produce your own potatoes? Here’s a useful piece with all the instruction you’ll need, courtesy of Countryside Network: How to Grow Potatoes. Quick tip: Potatoes depend on “long days and warm temperates to make a good crop.”
The Health Profile of a Potato
You’ve probably heard that eating white potatoes may cause you to gain weight or negatively affect your blood sugar levels, but according to medical experts, it’s how you eat them that matters the most.
Although white potatoes can be cooked in different ways, the American diet is strongly defined by its love for fried potatoes, which makes them an unpopular choice for people who are looking to eat a healthier diet.
Some studies show that those who eat more white potatoes, no matter how they’re cooked, have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Those who eat French fries increase their type 2 diabetes risk by an additional 19 percent.
If you eat them baked or broiled, however, and if you avoid fattening toppings such as cheese, sour cream, or bacon, the benefits of potatoes can outweigh the risks. Here are some good reasons to put white potatoes back into your diet if you’ve been avoiding them:
- They keep you satiated longer than other complex carbs. According to a recent study, participates were more satisfied consuming potatoes with meat than with rice or pasta. Eating white potatoes also resulted in a lower calorie intake overall for the participants.
- They’re a good source of resistant starch. When digested, white potatoes pass through the large intestine where it can feed on the good bacteria in your gut. This is beneficial for blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity.
- They provide antioxidants. White potatoes are a good source of antioxidants such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acids, which can neutralize free radicals and prevent cancer, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.
The Health Profile of a Sweet Potato
Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are a great choice for diabetics or for those at risk of developing diabetes because of their low-to-medium glycemic index (depending on whether they’re eaten with the skin on or off), which means they won’t make your blood sugar levels spike as much as white potatoes.
Here are some other reasons to choose sweet potatoes:
- They’re a good source of manganese. This mineral is good for bone development, metabolism, and vitamin absorption.
- They’re loaded with magnesium. Known as the “great relaxation mineral,” magnesium can help with blood sugar management, blood pressure, and metabolism.
- They fight inflammation. In addition to the abundant amount of vitamin A found in the orange-fleshed varieties, the purple sweet potato varieties are a good source of anthocyanin, which contains anti-inflammatory properties.
SWEET ON SWEET POTATOES? TRY THIS RECIPE
On the lookout for unique ways to prep sweet potatoes? At TOPS.org, you’ll find a recipe for a Sweet Potato and Black Bean Burger. Instead of processed veggie burgers out of a package, create your own, using a cooked mashed sweet potato as a key ingredient. “These hearty burgers are great on the grill or prepared in the pan,” according to TOPS.org. Click here to get everything you need: an ingredient list, directions, and nutrition information.
In the battle of sweet potatoes vs. potatoes, there doesn’t seem to be a clear winner. Both veggies have their pros and cons, but it all comes down to your preference in taste and your individual health goals. What appears to be most important, though, is that they’re consumed in moderation. It’s best to find healthy ways to incorporate both of them into your diet and discuss with your doctor your individual concerns, particularly if you’re diabetic.
Potato Cooking Tips
Here are some tips you can use at home and while eating out to make sure your potatoes are both delicious and healthy:
- Avoid frying them. As mentioned earlier, steaming, boiling, or roasting potatoes will result in a lower calorie and fat content than if you eat them fried.
- Choose healthier toppings. Instead of loading them up with butter, bacon, cheddar cheese, and sour cream, try topping your potatoes with Greek yogurt, broccoli, honey, or vegetable chili.
- Avoid processed potato products. Potato chips and instant mashed potatoes often contain too much salt, fat, and/or preservatives.
- Leave the skins on. Not only do they add flavor to your potato dishes, the skins also contain additional fiber and other nutrients.
ARE SWEET POTATOES AND YAMS THE SAME THING?
Depending on where you live, you may have used the words “sweet potato” and “yam” interchangeably, but are they really the same thing?
Both are categorized as tubers, but believe it or not, yams and sweet potatoes aren’t even related. Yams, a popular vegetable in Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean, have brown or black skin on the outside and off-white, purple, or red flesh on the inside. They’re sweeter than sweet potatoes, and can be fried, roasted or boiled. They’re quite hard to find in American supermarkets, but you may see them in markets that sell Caribbean, Asian, or African foods.
So why the confusion? Well, according to the Library of Congress, African slaves in America began calling the soft varieties of sweet potatoes “yams” because it reminded them of the vegetable from their homeland. The nickname for the soft variety stuck, while the firm variety continued to be referred to as “sweet potatoes.”
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU
- Are Potatoes Gluten-Free?
- Are Potatoes Healthy? New Study Finds an Alarming Risk
- Glycemic Index Chart: GI Ratings for Hundreds of Foods
- 8 Healthiest Chips to Eat
- 12 Fall Foods That Benefit Your Health Inside and Out
This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.