potato war

Potato War – Is it Better to Be Sweet or White

Executive Summary

It’s time to bring this potato war to an end. And no, I don’t mean the battle of “You say puh-tay-toh and I say puh-tah-toh.” I’m talking about the common belief that sweet potatoes are superior to white potatoes. Let’s back up a bit first.

The nutrition world is full of small nuggets of wisdom. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” “Eat many small meals throughout the day to keep up your metabolism.” “Mikey won’t eat it. He hates everything.”

Add to this list, the slightly less common “If it’s white, it’s not right.” The implication is that white foods aren’t good for you. White bread. White rice. White potatoes.

These sayings usually catch on because they’re easy to remember. The problem is, they’re not true. In the case of “If it’s white, it’s not right.”, there are some obvious exceptions such as cauliflower, mushrooms, and egg whites. But, what about those carby foods like rice and potatoes?

I examined the situation with rice in a previous post, Rice Wars. The conclusion? Brown rice is nutritionally superior but the differences aren’t that great. And you can compensate for any differences that do exist with some simple tweaks.

What about white potatoes vs. sweet potatoes? I’ll get to the bottom of that in this post.

Potato War – The Adversaries

With rice, it’s pretty easy to see why the brown version may have an edge over white. They are the same plant. White rice is a more processed version of brown rice and that processing removes key nutrients.

White and sweet potatoes aren’t even close relatives. White potatoes are members of the nightshade family (solanaceae). They’re more closely linked to tomatoes. peppers, eggplants and other things Tom Brady won’t eat than they are to sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes belong to the convolvulaceae family. This is the same family as morning glories. Unlike morning glories, I found no evidence that eating sweet potato seeds will cause you to trip balls.

Potato War – Nutrition

When you compare the nutrition between the two (using medium sized varieties as the baseline), you come up with a table like that below.

Sweet White
Calories 103 161
Total Fat 0 g 0 g
Total Carbohydrate 24 g 37 g
Dietary Fiber 3.8 g 3.8 g
Protein 2.3 g 4.3 g
Vitamin A 438% 0%
Thiamin 8% 7%
Riboflavin 7% 5%
Niacin 8% 12%
Pantothenic Acid 10% 7%
Vitamin B6 16% 27%
Folate 2% 12%
Vitamin C 37% 28%
Copper 9% 10%
Iron 4% 10%
Magnesium 8% 12%
Manganese 28% 19%
Phosphorous 6% 12%
Potassium 15% 26%

Study that table long enough and two things happen:

  1. The table starts to look like one of those “Magic Eye” posters.
    potato war
  2. You realize that both potatoes provide a nutritional punch in their own way.

Potato War – Health Benefits

As you can see, each potato has its own advantage. Sweets excel when it comes to fiber and Vitamin A. White potatoes have more essential minerals including iron, magnesium and potassium.

Some people avoid white potatoes because they have a greater glycemic index than sweet potatoes. The glycemic index is a way of measuring a food’s effect on blood sugar levels. The implication is that a higher index causes higher blood sugar levels which long term can lower insulin sensitivity which leads to diabetes. However, while white potatoes have a higher index than sweet potatoes. They’re pretty close. Furthermore, the glycemic index is actually a pretty meaningless metric for lots of reasons but for the sake of brevity, a virtue I rarely have, I’ll limit to the following.

The glycemic index varies depending on the preparation of the food as well as its accompaniments. Mashed white potatoes loaded with butter and milk have a lower index than a dry baked sweet potato.

Some people believe all potatoes are unhealthful because of <cue Psycho shower scene music here>…carbs. They’re wrong. The carbohydrates in both kinds of potatoes are the best you can find. They’re loaded with fiber and resistant starch. Both are good for digestion, the heart, and weight loss.

White potatoes especially are very filling. When compared to a list of 40 other foods, boiled white potatoes shot to the top as the most satiating.

Potato War – Things to Watch Out For

Sweet Potatoes and Kidney Stones

Sweet potatoes are high in substances known as oxylates. Oxylates should be avoided by people prone to kidney stones.

Some White Potatoes Contain Toxins

Nightshades, including potatoes, contain a phytonutrient called glycoalkaloids. Certain types of glycoalkaloids are poisonous to humans. Avoid eating green potatoes or any part where the eyes may be sprouting. This is an indication of high levels of the toxin you want to avoid.

What Would Davey H Do?

  1. If I have no other reason to avoid carbohydrates, enjoy both kinds of potatoes to ensure the benefits of each. I’ll also throw in one of those crazy new colorful options like purple potatoes just to show folks I like to live life on the edge.
  2. Eat the peels if you can stomach them (and they’re not green). That’s where much of the nutrition hides. If you like the skins but your recipe calls for peeling, save the peels, toss them in some olive oil, roast them in a 375° F (190º C) oven until crisp. You’re welcome.
  3. Yams are not sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are nutritionally superior to yams with more protein, vitamins and minerals. Accept no substitutes

When it comes to the war against potatoes, let’s call the whole thing off.

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