What is a sweet potato?
The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a starchy, sweet-tasting root vegetable. It has a thin, brown outer skin with bright-coloured flesh – most commonly orange, but other varieties include white, purple or yellow. You can eat sweet potatoes whole or peeled and the leaves of the plant are edible, too.
They may both be called ‘potatoes’, but sweet and regular white potatoes are not related. Botanically, the sweet potato belongs to the bindweed or morning glory family, whereas the white potato sits in the nightshade family.
Nutritional profile of sweet potato
An 80g serving of sweet potato (steamed) provides:
- 67kcal / 285kj
- 0.9g protein
- 0.2g fat
- 16.3g carbohydrates
- 6.7g sugar
- 280mg potassium
- 3012 mcg carotenes
- 14mg vitamin C
An 80g serving of sweet potato, or one medium potato, counts towards one of your five-a-day, unlike white potato, which does not. Take a look at our infographic to find out what counts towards your five-a-day.
Top 5 health benefits of sweet potato
1. May reduce the risk of cancer
While there are no ‘superfoods’ that can prevent cancer and certain risk factors for cancer are unrelated to diet, there is evidence that eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of cancer. Fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants, compounds that help defend the body against damage by ‘free radicals’. Studies have suggested that the antioxidants in the peel of sweet potatoes, especially purple sweet potato, may help reduce this oxidation process, thereby reducing the risk of cancer. To get the most nutrition from your sweet potatoes, don’t peel – simply scrub well before cooking.
2. May support digestive health
Sweet potatoes are high in fibre, which has been shown to promote a healthy digestive system. Much of the research so far has been conducted on animals, but it would appear that high levels of plant sterols (phytosterols) in sweet potatoes may have a protective effect on the digestive system and may be useful in the prevention and management of duodenal and gastric ulcers, including those due to NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen).
3. May help manage type-2 diabetes
Interesting findings suggest that moderate consumption of sweet potato and sweet potato leaves may improve blood sugar regulation in type-2 diabetes. However, more evidence from well-designed trials are needed in order to confirm these findings.
4. Good for eye health
Sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene – in fact, it’s what gives this root its bright-orange flesh. When we eat beta-carotene, our body converts it to vitamin A, which is then used to form light detecting receptors in the eye. This is important for night vision and maintaining the health of the eye.
5. May support immune function
Being rich in beta-carotene, sweet potatoes may also help support immune function. This is because vitamin A is important for maintaining the integrity of the mucous membranes in the respiratory system and gut.
Are sweet potatoes safe for everyone to eat?
However, they do contain compounds called oxalates, which bind calcium and other minerals. Too many oxalates in the diet may cause kidney stones. If you have existing kidney stones or are at high risk of developing them, you should minimise your consumption of high-oxalate foods.
If in doubt or you have concerns regarding your diet and health condition, refer to your GP or registered dietician.
How does cooking affect the nutritional value of sweet potato?
Cooking sweet potato does reduce its beta-carotene levels, although boiling appears to have a higher retention compared to baking. The good news, however, is that cooking sweet potato appears to increase its vitamin C content.
Healthy sweet potato recipes
Sweet potato, coconut & lemongrass soup with coriander sambal
Sweet potato dhal with curried vegetables
Moroccan chicken with sweet potato mash
Spinach, sweet potato & lentil dhal
Jerk sweet potato & black bean curry
Spiced chicken, spinach & sweet potato stew
All our healthy sweet potato recipes
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This article was last reviewed on 31 August 2021 by Kerry Torrens.
Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years, she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications, including BBC Good Food.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.