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There’s more to sweet potatoes than the sugary pies and casseroles served at Thanksgiving. Separate this tasty tuber from the brown sugar and marshmallows often added to them, and you’ve got yourself a healthy ingredient that’s also inexpensive and delicious.
“Sweet potatoes are a wonderful way to get natural sweetness along with health benefits,” says Joan Salge Blake, RDN, a nutrition professor at Boston University.
People often assume sweet potatoes are a less healthy relative of the white potato because of the word “sweet” in the name and the rich flavor that develops when they’re roasted. Ounce for ounce, though, a sweet potato and a russet or other regular white potato have around the same amount of calories, carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
Sweet potatoes fall into the healthy carb category. A medium sweet potato has around 140 calories and 5 grams of fiber. Sweet potatoes also have a low glycemic index score. “The higher the number on the index, the more rapid one can expect an increase in blood sugar after ingestion of the food,” says Lourdes Castro Mortillaro, MS, director of the NYU Food Lab and adjunct professor of nutrition and food studies. Blood sugar spikes may have implications for type 2 diabetes and weight gain risk. Topping your sweet potato with protein- and fat-containing ingredients—think a drizzle of olive oil and some chopped walnuts or pecans—will also help keep blood sugar balanced.
Available in a variety of colors—from traditional orange to fiery yellow and reddish to an eye-catching purple—all sweet potatoes are good for you, but they have different nutrients.
Orange sweet potatoes are vitamin and mineral powerhouses. A medium one has 165 percent of the vitamin A you need per day from the beta carotene it contains, along with more than 20 percent of the potassium—a blood-pressure-lowering nutrient most adults fall short on. They’re also rich in niacin and vitamin C. Yellow-fleshed varieties supply vitamins A and C and potassium, too. Purple and white sweet potatoes contain antioxidant compounds called flavonoids that can help control inflammation.
Putting Them on Your Plate
Sweet potatoes are popular in cuisines from around the world. Orange sweet potatoes, for instance, are a staple food in Africa, where they may be served in a peanut stew.
The drier, less sweet, white-fleshed boniato (batata) is more common in the Caribbean, where you may see it served mashed or used in desserts.
Purple sweet potatoes are a main food in the traditional diet of Okinawa, a region known for its high concentration of centenarians. More than half of the daily caloric intake of Okinawan diets come from sweet potatoes.
In the U.S., next to the traditional Thanksgiving preparations, sweet potato fries and chips may be the way many of us consume this vegetable. While they may be higher in some nutrients than their white potato counterparts, depending on how they’re made, both sweet potato fries and chips can be high in saturated fat and sodium, Salge Blake says. You can make a healthier version at home by cutting sweet potatoes into matchsticks, drizzling with olive oil, and roasting at 400° F (or you can use an air fryer). For better-for-you chips, slice rounds on a mandoline, drizzle with olive oil, and roast at 400° F.
An even better bet: Focus on healthier prep methods, such as steaming and roasting, to keep this wholesome food nutritious and allow its natural flavors to shine, Castro Mortillaro says. Baked sweet potatoes can be a canvas for toppings that can easily turn them into a meal. Try them with black beans and a spoonful each of guacamole and salsa in a salad or in a corn tortilla; topped with shredded BBQ chicken and Greek yogurt and chives; or with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a drizzle of tahini.
Soup is another way to enjoy the rich flavor and texture of sweet potatoes. Salge Blake likes to roast sweet potatoes along with acorn squash, onions, and apples. Blended together with low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth and water, the sweet potatoes add thickness and depth. “The soup has the consistency of a chowder or a bisque, but it doesn’t have the cream,” she says.
Still, there’s no need to dismiss your holiday tradition. “If melted marshmallows on top of your sweet potatoes is the one dish you look forward to every year, I say have at it,” Castro Mortillaro says. Just know that there are also loads of healthier ways to enjoy sweet potatoes year-round.