What’s so sweet about the sweet potato?

sweet_potatoesFirst, let’s set the record straight about the difference between a sweet potato and a yam.  These two root vegetables are not the same.  Yams and sweet potatoes arise from two different species; yams are more prevalent in Asia and Africa while the sweet potato is prevalent in Europe and the Americas.  Often in the United States, the sweet potato is called a yam but the variety you see in the US is actually sweet potato, even the so-called canned ‘yams’! Now that we know for sure that we have sweet potatoes in the kitchen, let’s find out why they are so fantastic for women’s health.

There are two basic sweet potato varieties: the light skinned, dry textured and less sweet flavor and the reddish brown skinned with bright orange flesh, which is soft and sweet when cooked.  Both varieties have an abundance of beta-carotenes, even more than carrots! One large baked sweet potato has 21mg of beta-carotene compared to 10mg in one cup of chopped raw carrots.  In fact, sweet potatoes contain more beta-carotene that any other produce!

So what is so significant about beta-carotene and how it affects your health?

beta-carotene-md1Beta-carotene is a pigment that gives a plant its orange and yellow colors.  When we eat produce with beta-carotene, and it is absorbed in our body, we convert it into vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant.  Our bodies use vitamin A in many processes such as vision, bone growth, reproduction, skin health, and the immune system.  Research has shown that vitamin A plays a role in preventing cancer.

Antioxidants like beta-carotene scavenge the body for free radicals.  They help prevent damage to important proteins that allow our cells to function properly.  This has been demonstrated particularly in cells of the reproductive tract.  The cells in the vagina are constantly growing and replicating while the old cells are being shed.  The walls of the vagina have a thick layer of skin cells that need to stay healthy and moist.  Vitamin A is fat-soluble and can easily pass into these skin cells to assist in antioxidant activity and keep the cells healthy.  This is particularly important because of the HPV (human papilloma virus) risk to the cervical cells.  Cervical cells are vulnerable to infection and risk developing into pre-cancerous cells.  These abnormal cells are what gynecologists look for on pap exams. When eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, including high beta-carotene containing foods, the antioxidant blood levels are amplified, which increases the likelihood that the cervical cells can fight off the infection.

Every cell in our bodies can benefit from the help of antioxidants.  This is an important reason why so many health professionals insist on a diet high in fruits and vegetables.  Beta-carotene works synergistically with other nutrients to help prevent chronic disease.  The sweet potato is a ‘sweet’ way to obtain a decent dose of beta-carotene and enjoy the delicious flavors the vegetable has to offer. In celebration of the famously mistaken sweet potato, here is a great holiday recipe to add to your fall dinners.  Try it without the marshmallows too.  You’ll be surprised at how sweet and delicious whipped sweet potatoes are!

Marshmallow Whipped Sweet Potatoes

marshmallow-sweetpotatoesPrep Time: 10 mins, Cook Time: 15 mins, Serves: 6


Canola oil (organic) cooking spray

3 cups hot sweet potatoes or yams, mashed

3 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoon cultured butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows


Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a 1 1/2-quart baking dish with the cooking spray.

Combine the sweet potatoes, orange juice, butter, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add 1 cup of the marshmallows and beat on medium speed until fluffy. If the marshmallows aren’t melting, microwave the bowl for a minute and resume beating.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining marshmallows over the top and bake for about 15 minutes. The marshmallows on top should be lightly browned.

By Haylee Nye, NCNM Naturopathic Medicine Program. Edited by Dr Elise Schroeder