Published on 11/15/05

Sweet potatoes: holiday favorite, food for thought

By Wayne J. McLaurin
University of Georgia

Turkey and green beans are holiday foods from the Americas. My own holiday favorite, the sweet potato, is another great New World food. I never ate a sweet potato I didn't like.

Growing up with the greatest cook in the world, we learned early to eat pretty much everything. In the blending of French, Italian, Creole and Cajun, though, there was always true "Southern cooking," which involved sweet potatoes.

Mamma fixed them french fried for breakfast with cinnamon and brown sugar. For other meals, she baked, boiled or candied them with marshmallows. She made mouth-watering pies and sweet-potato chips. We ate many cold sweet potatoes, too, as a snack after school.


My favorites, however, were the sweet-potato surprises. Mamma made them from baked sweet potatoes she mashed with spices and rolled into golf-ball-size pieces. Poking her thumb into the ball made just enough space to insert one or two miniature marshmallows.

Then she reformed the ball, rolled it in fresh-grated coconut and chopped pecans and baked it until the outside was crusty and the marshmallow melted inside.

Sweet potatoes are food for thought, too. We called our sweet potatoes yams because the variety we grew was the Puerto Rican type that was moist-fleshed and very sweet. The names "sweet potato" and "yam" have been used interchangeably over the years.


Actually, the African word nyami, referring to the starchy, edible root of the Dioscorea genus of plants, was adopted in its English form, yam. This plant has a very starchy, nonsweet tuber very different from the moist-fleshed sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas).

The National Society of Horticulture Science now refers to our "yam" as "sweetpotato" -- one word. But dictionaries still list it as two words.

The sweet potato is high in carbohydrates and vitamin A. It has an abundance of uses. We cook the leaves like greens. And besides eating the roots all those wonderful ways, we process them into snacks and candy for people, feed for animals, starch, flour, alcohol and many industrial products.

Sweet potatoes yield very well under a wide range of environmental conditions. They can produce more edible energy per acre per day than wheat, rice or cassava.


That's why they rank high among global food crops. Most of the world's sweet potatoes are grown in developing countries, typically by small-scale farmers and often in marginal areas. There, the sweet potato is a vital food crop. In eastern Africa, it's called cilera abana, "protector of the children."

Sweet potatoes offer great hope in the war on blindness, too. Millions of young African children are blind or have some form of degenerative eye disease because their diets lack vitamin A. So scientists have been breeding orange-flesh, high-vitamin-A sweet potatoes to suit Africans' taste.

It makes my holiday dinner a little sweeter just to think of how sweet potatoes have improved lives worldwide.

(Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.