Sweet potato: the root of humanity

Sweet potato

Are you looking for a sweet, healthy, humble soul mate to spend your time with? Are you a potato lover? Look no further than the sweet potato. Sure, it's a little rough around the edges and technically doesn't qualify as a "person" or a mere potato, but you can be sure that this strongly rooted vegetable has been connecting cultures and sustaining civilizations for a long time.

Native to Central and South America, sweet potato (Ipomoea potato) thrives in tropical and warm temperate regions. This food has evolved to become the most efficient staple food in terms of caloric yield per land area. The large tuberous root of this plant acts as an energy store to help it survive under stress conditions. As a result, the edible root is extremely rich in nutrients, making it truly a superfood. In addition to the starchy root, which can easily be baked, boiled, fried or pureed into dishes Both sweet and savory dishes, the shoots and leaves of the plant can also sometimes be eaten as vegetables.

Sweet potato, rooted in adventure

While this gift of nature can easily be praised for its taste and nutritional value alone, a quick look at the history of the sweet potato can help us appreciate the important role this modest root has played for the past two thousand years. Originally cultivated by indigenous peoples of Central and South America, the sweet potato entered the European diet after being discovered by Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century.

However, almost 300 years later, Captain Cook rediscovered the sweet potato crop on several Polynesian islands, where it had been cultivated for centuries. An important question arose that would confound botanists, historians, and anthropologists for decades: how did this plant cross thousands of miles of ocean and become established on the remote, uninhabited islands of Polynesia?

One clue that sweet potatoes have been transported by people across continents is the similarity between the phonetics of the word sweet potato in Quechua, Cumarand its equivalent in Maori, Kumara. In this scenario, ancient mariners traveled thousands of miles using only stars, clouds, waves, birds, and floating foliage as directions for which paths to take. In 1947, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl proved that this was possible when he set out on the Kon-Tiki expedition, leaving South America on a hand-made raft to reach Polynesia 3 months later.

Thanks to a genomic study published in the journal Nature two years ago, there is now genetic evidence that Polynesians made contact with Native Americans much earlier than any Europeans. And what is the one thing we know that the two civilizations considered valuable enough to trade? That's right, the sweet potato. And they were so right!

More than just Sweet

From an agricultural standpoint, sweet potato is a very easy crop to grow. Instead of seeds, the sweet potato plant can be grown from stem cuttings that quickly develop to cover the ground with broad, edible leaves containing the underlying weeds. It's no surprise that it quickly became a staple of every crop it crossed paths with, and even earned a place of its own in mythology Maori mythology. One Maori proverb in particular: "Kumara does not speak of his own sweetness"is very revealing of the plant's many virtues, notably its nutritional quality.

Benefits of Sweet Potato

Sweet potatoes have a number of health benefits that set them apart from other starchy vegetables. Best known for its high content of carotenoids and anthocyanins, sweet potatoes are a great source of antioxidants. These pigments give the root its distinctive orange and purple colors, respectively, but are also great at neutralizing the free radicals that lead to cognitive decline and memory loss. When digested, they are transformed into vitamin A, which plays a crucial role in improving night vision, maintaining healthy cell growth and immune system function. In fact, one baked sweet potato contains more than the recommended daily dose of vitamin A, along with a good amount of vitamins C and B6.

Sweet potatoes also contain several minerals that regulate processes such as hormone and red blood cell production, fluid regulation, bone growth, and nerve function. But perhaps the most notable benefit of this high-energy source is fiber. One sweet potato can contain about 15% of the daily value of both insoluble and soluble fiber. This supply of both types of fiber is crucial for promoting gut regulation and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. In fact, soluble fiber has been associated with a reduced risk of serious health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Behind the scenes

The responsible for introducing these superpowers in our baskets is Daniela Policarpo. Daniela has been sharing her tasty sweet potatoes, pumpkins and spinach with Equal Food since the beginning. Since 2002 she has been growing delicious food locally at A Dos Cunhados in Torres Vedras, and we are very grateful to be able to help her reduce the amount that never reaches our stomachs.

daniela policarpo-sweet potato production