What the Heck Are Purple Sweet Potatoes—And How Do You Use Them?

purple sweet potatoes
What to Know About Purple Sweet PotatoesNungning20 - Getty Images

We love sweet potatoes.

Though the regular potato has a home in our pantry, sweet potatoes get special attention. They're not only more delicious, but they're also more nutritious, with more fiber, vitamin A, and vitamin C than their starchier counterparts.

They're also easier to cook: A sweet potato can be eaten undercooked or even raw without causing any problems. Try that with a regular potato and you're in for some gastric distress.

You can add them into almost any meal. Sweet Potato Hash is great with eggs for breakfast. We love Sweet Potato Fries at lunch. We'll make a Loaded Sweet Potato Bar for an easy dinner, and of course, no one can say no to Sweet Potato Pie for dessert.

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Susie Cushner

Related: 42 Sweet Potato Recipes for Cooking All Fall and Winter

But while you may be familiar with orange, and even white sweet potatoes, if you've ever seen a purple sweet potato, it may have you thinking: Where do those sweet potatoes come from? What makes them purple? Do they taste different?

Where do purple sweet potatoes come from?

Both the potato and the botanically unrelated sweet potato are native to the Americas—and so, were not eaten in Europe before the 16th century.

Sweet potatoes of all colors (and there are many, from white and beige, to red, yellow, and orange, to light and dark purple) are simply varieties that have grown or been cultivated, originally in the Americas and now all over the world.

Many people associate purple sweet potatoes with Japan, where they were brought sometime between the 1500s and the 1600s. There, they are known as "Okinawan sweet potatoes" and are popular, roasted over coals, as a street food.

What's the difference between purple sweet potatoes and purple yams?

The sweet potato is not the same as a yam, though there's a lot of confusion between the two.

Sweet potatoes are tropical plants, which is why they're found more readily in Southern cuisine. When West Africans came to the U.S. as enslaved people, they found that they could cook with sweet potatoes in similar ways as they did with the African yam roots they were used to. They called the tubers yams, and the term caught on with the white Slave owners that ate their food. However, yams are a different food entirely from sweet potatoes.

There is a true yam that is purple. It's called an "ube" (pronounce: oo-bay) and it's native to Asia and the Philippines. Though it's not often found in an American produce aisle, you can occasionally find sweet, purple, ube-flavored desserts in Asian grocery stores and restaurants, such as ube ice cream, cake, or donuts.

Are purple sweet potatoes genetically modified? Are they dyed?

Purple sweet potatoes existed long before genetically modified foods, and the purple coloring occurs naturally. In fact, many places now use purple sweet potatoes as a form of natural food dye, for coloring candies, drinks, and other foods!

Are purple sweet potatoes good for you? Are they healthier than orange ones?

Good news! All sweet potatoes are healthy for you (especially when cooked without too much fat or oil), and all sweet potatoes are nutritionally about the same.

Orange sweet potatoes are higher in beta-carotene. That's what colors the vegetable orange. Your body uses it as an antioxidant. Beta carotene is in other orange foods, such as carrots.

Purple sweet potatoes are higher in anthocyanins. These are what color the vegetable purple. Your body also uses them as antioxidants. Anthocyanins are found in other purple foods, such as blueberries, though there's a lot more of them in sweet potatoes.

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purple potato pie, purple potato
dashu83 - Getty Images

Do purple sweet potatoes taste different?

If you were to roast two different sweet potatoes and then taste them side by side, you might notice a small difference in taste.

Some say that purple sweet potatoes are slightly sweeter. Others claim that they're less sweet, but have a creamier texture.

Other than their striking color, we think they are pretty much interchangeable with orange, white, red, or any other color sweet potato. But that color is pretty impressive! Try sweet potatoes in your favorite sweet potato pie recipe this fall, and see what your family thinks!

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