#MondayMythBuster: What’s better, white potatoes or sweet potatoes?

#MondayMythBuster: What’s better, white potatoes or sweet potatoes?

January 11, 2018

As we have mentioned before, food often follows fashions and trends. The way people ate in the 60’s was quite different to how people started to eat in the 80’s. Government and scientific advice would often change over time, and this would heavily influence how people would eat.
Even today the way we eat is constantly changing.  We have access to a variety of foods that was never possible for humankind before.  As nutritional science knowledge advanced we get told different information, however the message often gets muddled and confused.  One day a newspaper headline may say Fat is good, the next it’s bad!  Red wine advice seems to change every week!
Sadly, the way in which scientific nutritional information gets reported to the mainstream public is often somewhat exaggerated or not quite telling the full story.  The reality is nutritional research is in its infancy compared to other research, and the money pumped into nutritional research is tiny compared to things like pharmaceutical research.  So as frustrating as it is, we are still really learning so much about the food we eat and what we know today is very open to changing tomorrow.
This ignorance is quite frustrating for us, we want simple advice when the reality is giving simple advice is not as easy as it sounds, yet when simple advice is given, it’s often ignored as it’s not sexy enough!  We naturally buy into stories, so when we hear things like “Superfoods” or something that suggests the food is the next big miracle food then we lap it up.  
As such there has been a huge rise in certain food stuff over the last 5 years, things like Coconut Oil, Kale, Goji Berries, Avocados and Sweet Potatoes.  It is great that we have access to so many new foods, and clearly there is plenty of nutrient density in many of these foods. Sometimes we are prone to hyperbole about how a certain food is amazing and another food is not so good!
Let’s consider Sweet Potatoes VS White Potatoes.
If something like Instagram is a sole source of nutritional information, well perhaps this may seem like an easy choice.  Sweet Potatoes are far better than white potatoes! “White potatoes are fattening, and sweet potatoes are far better!”  Is this true though?
Potatoes are often linked with Chips, Fries and Crisps.  Consumption with these foods has been associated with increases in obesity and diabetes so it’s perhaps easy to see why potatoes have got a little bit of a bad reputation.  Sweet potatoes in contrast are typical eaten from a “Whole” form, they also have a lower “glycaemic index” than their white counterparts.  The ability to regulate blood sugar is associated with fat storage, thus there has been a whole theory around eating “lower glycaemic” foods which has less impact on blood sugar regulation. 
So Sweet Potatoes are far better for you right…..?
If only it was so simple…….
As with all foods, white potatoes and sweet potatoes have some nutritional differences, but we can’t say one is necessarily better than the other.  We have to really look at a much bigger picture than looking at individual foods.  Kale is considered a superfood, but if you eat too much Kale you can poison yourself, the same could apply to the one true miracle food water, too much could kill you!  So, context dose and entire lifestyle is much more important to consider than simply wondering about specific individual foods, sadly there rarely is a magic pill or food that does magic.
Sweet Potatoes have more fibre and Vitamin A.  They are an impressive source of Vitamin A, this is common in orange foods like carrots due to the high levels of Beta-carotene.  This is great, but it’s also important to realise that certain doses are all you need, overdosing on Vitamin A is something that has occurred many times in the past.  If you’ve been told you need a little more Vitamin A in your diet by a medical professional, then introducing some extra Sweet Potatoes into your diet may be quite useful.  
However, if it was a choice between Sweet Potatoes and White Potatoes regarding consumption of other essential minerals, like magnesium, Iron or Potassium, then White Potatoes are a better source of these minerals comparatively.
Even the glycaemic index argument can be easily challenged.  From the little bit we understand about the importance of the Glycaemic Index, we do realise that certain foods eaten in combination tend to have effects on the blood sugar responses.  Baked/Jacket potatoes are rarely eaten on their own. It’s often eaten with things like sour cream or cheese which are fat laden foods. Fat laden foods generally lower the glycaemic index of a meal.
There is also a slightly more modern concern regarding potatoes, and this is the rise of awareness of “Anti-nutrients”.  Lectins is a new buzz word amongst the clean eating advocates of Social media. Apparently, this is an anti-nutrient that is present in potatoes and must be avoided at all costs!  
Nature is really clever. Potatoes, like most tubers actually made their own “Defences”.  In fact, almost all plant foods do this to help protect themselves against pests and diseases.  The theory is that these “defences” can also be harmful to humans.
These defences are present in both White and Sweet Potatoes.  They can actually play a part if you eat the potatoes “Raw”, but not many people seem to do that!  Some people do have allergenic issues with potatoes which must be respected, but the boring truth is that when these foods are “Cooked” these defence mechanisms are almost completely eradicated and our bodies are perfectly able to process them.  Simply, if you eat potatoes and feel fine, you’ve probably got nothing to worry about.
The Verdict
Both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes can and probably do deserve a place in your diet, both can easily be eaten whilst maintaining a healthy lean body.
It’s important to understand that the way the potato is processed and cooked makes quite a difference.  Both potatoes and sweet potatoes have quite a large influence on satiety.  Consider how full, and for how long you would feel eating a baked potato compared to a bag of crisps. Boiling, baked or Fried, they all make a significant different to how the food affects your body.  
This is arguably the most important question regarding potatoes, how should you be eating them? Is this a Jacket potato with some accompanying vegetables and a local fresh fish or a plate of French fries as part of a fast food meal?  Even Sweet Potatoes with their new found popularity are finding their way into Sweet potato fries and pies!  Do you really think they are still a magical food regardless of how they are processed?
Both Sweet Potatoes and White Potatoes are great foods to enjoy in your diet.  Sweet Potatoes do have plenty of nutrition, especially with Vitamin A precursors and many phytonutrients, but on their own this doesn’t mean much, but as a part of a variable balance diet they can be a great addition As can white potatoes, which create high levels of satiety are also have their own nutritional density.
So, if you want to eat potatoes, certainly eat them in whatever form you enjoy.  However, be wary of crisps and fries which are really treat foods that are very easy to overeat with.
The Winner? – A draw

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Allen, Jonathan C. et al. Glycemic index of sweet potato as affected by cooking methods. Open Nutrition Journal 6 (2012).
Bahado-Singh, Perceval S., et al. Relationship between processing method and the glycemic indices of ten sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) cultivars commonly consumed in Jamaica. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism 2011.
Beausoleil, Janet L., et al. Anaphylaxis to raw potato. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 86 no.1 (January 2001): 68-70.
Burri, Betty J. Evaluating sweet potato as an intervention food to prevent Vitamin A deficiency. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 10 (2011).
Landon, S. et al. The Resistant Starch Report: An Australian update on health benefits, measurement and dietary intakes. Food Australia 2012.
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