Winter is slowly but surely coming to an end. As the days get longer and the mercury creeps up there’s something that will disappear off the streets of Beijing. No, I’m not referring to the snow! I’m talking about sweet potato. But just because the temperature is getting warmer, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy this delectable treat. This root vegetable packs a nutritional punch, and kids love it too!
Although sweet potatoes originated in Latin America, according to the International Potato Centre (CIP), China is the largest producer, at 117 million tons per year. That accounts for 90% of the world’s sweet potato production!
The flesh of the sweet potato is high in an orange pigment called Beta-Carotene, a powerful antioxidant. The liver uses Beta-Carotene to make Vitamin A. This vitamin is needed for healthy skin and eyes, as well as for growth and bone development, making it a very important nutrient for children. Beta-Carotene helps boost the immune system, protects against the negative effects of pollution and can prevent osteoporosis. Beta-Carotene can disable reactive oxygen species (ROS) molecules generated by exposure to sunlight and air pollution. ROS are very unstable molecules that damage DNA and cause other negative effects in the body. Beta-Carotene can counteract this effect and prevent damage to eyes, lungs and skin. A diet high in Beta-Carotene rich foods has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. Other nutrients found in sweet potatoes are potassium, Vitamin B6, manganese, Vitamin C and iron.
Sweet potatoes are a good source of Vitamin B6. Making this vegetable excellent brain food! B6 is required for normal brain function and is used by the nervous system. Vitamin B6 is needed in the production of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. These neurotransmitters help to balance our moods and counteract depression.
High fiber is one of the many benefits of eating sweet potatoes. Fiber regulates the digestive system and contributes to a healthy colon. It helps to remove toxins from the system. Fiber also slows the breakdown of carbohydrates, allowing our blood sugar to rise slowly, giving us a longer source of energy. Most of the fiber is in the skin, so whenever possible leave it on and eat it. When buying sweet potatoes choose those that are firm and have smooth, even skin, with no bruises or soft spots. They are best kept in a cool, dry place. Refrigeration can take away their flavor.
A word of caution, if you choose to buy a sweet potato from a street vendor, be mindful that the large metal drums come from unknown sources. Some say that these drums have previously contained toxic chemicals. Another potential problem is not knowing how well the skin has been washed. For this reason it’s best to prepare sweet potato at home. It’s very easy. Just wash and scrub the skin really well. Pinch a few times with a fork and bake in the oven until soft. Beta-carotene is best absorbed with fat, so drizzle some olive oil on your sweet potato and dig in!
Dr. Melissa Rodriguez is a Naturopathic doctor who lives with her family in Beijing.