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Reinventing camote: The humble nutrient powerhouse

By MYLENE MENDOZA-DAYRIT, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 07, 2023 5:00 am

It’s about time that people around the world discover the dietary and culinary benefits of sweet potato or camote. In many Asian countries, you will see it being sold on the streets roasted, fried, steamed or baked. 

To my surprise though, the humble yet powerhouse source of nutrients has been elevated in Japan. Not only is camote being sold on the streets, there are restaurants there that sell nothing else but the dependable tuber. Whether in Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe or Nagoya, I saw restaurants with long lines—for both dine in and take out—with impressive menus glorifying the sweet potato. 

Do you know that the camote has one gram more fiber and five grams less sugar than a medium serving of banana? Sweet potatoes also contain more potassium than a banana, and has more beta-carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6 and folate than an apple. While both are high in dietary fiber, the camote has 60-percent less sugar. 

sweet potato chips and donuts

In fact, according to nutritionists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the sweet potato ranks number one in nutrition compared to all other vegetables. With a score of 184, the sweet potato outscored the next highest vegetable by more than 100 points. 

Another surprising fact: the Satsuma-imo or yaki-imo (the Japanese sweet potato) is not native to Japan. In 1605, it arrived in Ryukyu island (now Okinawa) from the Philippines. It became so popular and was grown in all regions of Japan because it proved to be a dependable and key source of nutrients whenever food shortages happen. 

ice cream and pudding

According to the president of the Sweet Potato Ambassador Association, Ayuki Hashimoto, the first yaki-imo boom took place during the Edo period (1603-1867). Sugar was scarce then, thus yaki-imo became a hit. The second boom in Japan was after the Meiji Restoration. The rapid spike in population increased the demand for the inexpensive yaki-imo. 

The third boom began in 1951, when sweet potatoes roasted over hot pebbles started to be offered in Tokyo. They were sold out of bicycle-drawn carts or from trucks. Automatic yaki-imo ovens for commercial use first appeared in 1998. This allowed stores and supermarkets to sell yaki-imo.

In Nankinmachi or Kobe Chinatown in Japan, one of the many popular restaurants with a long queue is this yaki-imo potato chips, donuts, ice cream, pudding, and more.

Ayuki said that consumers feel less guilty eating yaki-imo than high-calorie sweets. That preference and the availability of the commercial oven led to the fourth yaki-imo boom that continues to this day. The increasing love for the tuber can be clearly seen from the exponential increase in Japan’s export of sweet potatoes. From 20 tons in 2000, the number grew to 2,000 tons in 2016 and has reached 5,600 tons in 2021. 

Incidentally, the world’s number one exporter of sweet potatoes is China. The Chinese are also the leading consumer of the nutritious tuber. Sweet potatoes are no longer a plain snack or a tasty side dish. Many people have grown fond of yaki-imo which inspired entrepreneurs and culinary experts to open restaurants with menus fully dedicated to it. 

From supporting heart health to boosting immunity, yaki-imo has a long list of impressive health benefits. Rich in essential nutrients, the sweet potato is a nutritional powerhouse, packed with essential vitamins and minerals. It is an excellent source of vitamin A, which is crucial for maintaining healthy vision, skin, and a strong immune system. It is also rich in vitamin C, potassium, and dietary fiber, contributing to overall well-being.

Japan’s sweet potato exports totaled 5,600 tons in 2021, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Yaki-imo is also beneficial to digestive health. The fiber content aids in maintaining a healthy digestive system. Fiber promotes regular bowel movements, prevents constipation, and supports a diverse and thriving gut microbiome. A healthy gut is linked to improved nutrient absorption and a bolstered immune system. 

The sweet potato helps regulate blood sugar levels. Contrary to its name, sweet potato has a relatively low glycemic index. This means it releases sugar into the bloodstream slowly, helping to stabilize blood sugar levels. This is especially beneficial for individuals with diabetes or those looking to manage their weight effectively.

 yakiimo (sweet potato) stand

The yaki-imo is a heart-healthy food choice. It is low in saturated fat and cholesterol while being a good source of potassium. Potassium helps regulate blood pressure, reducing the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. The high content of vitamins A and C in the sweet potato play a crucial role in supporting the immune system. Vitamin A enhances the skin’s defense mechanisms, while vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that helps the body fight off infections and free radicals. 

Yaki-imo also contains various anti-inflammatory compounds, including anthocyanins, which give some varieties their deep purple color. These compounds may help reduce inflammation in the body, potentially benefiting conditions like arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases. 

The fiber content of the sweet potato helps promote feelings of fullness, reducing the likelihood of overeating. Additionally, the complex carbohydrates in the sweet potato provide a steady source of energy, making them an excellent choice for sustained physical activity. That’s why it is a staple in weight management. 

Whether baked, roasted, mashed, or used in a variety of dishes, this versatile tuber can be a delicious and nutritious addition to your diet. In the Philippines, I often hear people lose interest in sweet potato because they get bored eating it plain. We should learn from the Japanese who have reinvented this famine busting tuber into an array of delicious food from soup, appetizers, bread, snacks and meals.