Potatoes vs. sweet potatoes
They have very similar names, but these two tubers have less in common than you might think. True, you can boil, oven-bake, mash or make chips from both varieties; ultimately it comes down to personal preference. But how are they different? And is there a grain of truth in the rumour that potatoes are unhealthy? Find out the answers to these questions and – of course – a clutch of delicious Monsieur Cuisine recipes in our new article for the Monsieur Cuisine Magazine.
Where do they actually come from?
If you fancy growing potatoes or sweet potatoes in your back garden, there’s nothing to stop you giving it a go. There are now a few varieties of sweet potato that grow well here. Originally, sweet potatoes came from Central and South America, but these days they’re mostly cultivated in the warmer regions of the USA, southern Europe and China. The sweet potatoes that you see in the supermarkets will mostly have been imported, unlike normal potatoes. Of course, some of these will have been imported too, as potatoes are grown all over the world. The standard potato didn’t originate in Europe either, but in the South American Andes. It only came to Europe in the 16th century and was initially grown as an ornamental plant on account of its pretty flowers and abundant foliage. Nowadays, potatoes are a staple of most people’s diets.
Stating the obvious
Put different varieties of potato next to one another and it’s immediately apparent that they differ in shape and colour. ‘Normal’ potatoes tend to be round or oval, while sweet potatoes are generally more tapered. The sweet potato is certainly more immediately striking, too, with its reddish skin and yellow-orange or even violet-coloured flesh. This is mainly due to its beta-Carotene, while is almost entirely absent from standard potatoes.
And the differences go beyond shape and colour. In fact, they’re completely different plants.
The potato belongs to the nightshade family, so it’s more closely related to tomatoes, peppers and tobacco than to the sweet potato, which comes from the bindweed family.
All nightshade plants contain alkaloids in the part of the plant that grows above the soil; in this case the leaves. Alkaloids cause poisoning symptoms in the human body, so the leaves of the potato plant aren't suitable for consumption. The leaves of the sweet potato plant, on the other hand, are safe to eat, but you’re unlikely to find them served anywhere in Europe; they aren’t readily available here. The common potato can only be eaten boiled or roasted, but sweet potatoes can be eaten raw – grated into salads, for instance.
Last but not least, there’s the taste. Every potato variety has its own taste, but the sweet potato very much lives up to its name, with a markedly sweeter flavour than any other potato. And it’s no wonder: sweet potatoes contain up to 5g more sugar per 100g than the standard spud. So what else is in these tubers?
The taste and name do rather give the game away, but sweet potatoes contain natural sugars and thus more carbohydrates than normal potatoes. But does that mean that they're less healthy? Not a bit of it! Sweet potatoes are actually far more densely packed with nutrients than their round counterparts, so they can definitely be classed as healthy foods.
Sweet potatoes are bursting with micronutrients like calcium, phosphorus, potassium, folic acid and iron. On top of that, they have four times more manganese than standard potatoes. The body uses manganese for the development of connective tissue, bones and cartilage. Consuming sweet potatoes regularly helps to strengthen the immune system, due to the high beta-Carotene content. And as if that's not enough, the sweet potato keeps you young ;-) it contains 90 times more vitamin E, which protects cells and prevents premature ageing. For its part, the standard spud is lower in calories and contains more iron and magnesium.
There’s something for everyone here, too. Terrific tubers: resistant starch and caiapo.
When potatoes cool down after being boiled, they form something called resistant starch. This kind of starch cannot be completely broken down by the body, so it provides far fewer kilocalories. At the same time, however, it is a source of energy for health-promoting intestinal bacteria and beneficial to the digestive tract. Put it this way: the notion that potatoes make you fat is a complete myth. It’s the fats and the heaps of salt that are often added to potato dishes that may make you put on weight.
Caiapo: a magic bullet. This substance is contained in the skin of the sweet potato and makes it a real magic bullet of a tuber. Caiapo can lower the blood sugar levels of people suffering from type II diabetes mellitus. In other words, the sweet potato might have a higher sugar content than its paler brethren, but it’s better for diabetics – and completely natural, too.