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Choosing sides

Which spud reigns at your table? Sweet potato or white potato?

Which spud reigns at your table? Sweet potato or white potato?

November 12, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Sweet potato, white potato. Everyone has a side.

And in some families, there are clear-cut favorites. In my family, during Thanksgiving, there are those who will pile on the au gratin and never touch the sweet potato pie.

Then there are others who'd rather slather their sweet potatoes in butter, cinnamon, sugar and marshmallows.

So, really, is one spud better than the other? It might be a draw.

Nutritionally, sweet potatoes have the edge, nutritionists say. But local chefs say the variety of white potatoes give you more entre options. Starch, for example, makes white potatoes good for frying. Fry sweet potatoes?

"It's going to be mush on a plate," said Karl Brown, host of "Cooking Fresh, Cooking Local," and a former chef at Yellow Brick Bank in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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Holiday side dishes

When in doubt, "serve both," said Lisa McCoy, a registered dietitian with the Washington County Health Department.

But this Thanksgiving, if you don't want more of the same - sweet potato pie, mashed white potatoes, etc. - try thinking outside the potato. Do a savory sweet potato dish or incorporate white potatoes into a dessert.

Or, if you're going with standbys, try healthful alternatives, McCoy said. Try a baked sweet potato instead of the oven-baked, marshmallow-topped dessert. There are many ways to make mashed potatoes more healthful and tasty, too.

Low-sodium chicken broth can be used instead of butter or cream, McCoy said. Leaving the skins on the potatoes is also healthful - that's where most of a potato's nutrients are.

The U.S. Potato Board offers a healthful recipe for sauted green beans and quartered potatoes, seasoned with rosemary and lemon zest. The recipe calls for olive oil, garlic and a bit of salt.

One's a root; one's a stem

According to the International Potato Center, a trade group, the sweet potato is actually not related to the potato. The sweet potato is a storage root, unlike the potato, which is a tuber or thickened stem.

The potato comes from the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes, red peppers and eggplant. The sweet potato comes from the Convolvulaceae family, according to the International Potato Center, according to the trade group, which includes morning glories.

Sweet potatoes are naturally more fiber-rich than white potatoes. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one 100-gram serving of baked sweet potatoes has 3.3 grams of dietary fiber - compared with 1.5 grams for a baked potato.

Fiber helps slow the breakdown of sugar, which is good news for diabetics, McCoy said.

Sweet potatoes are also a good source of the antioxidant beta-carotene, vitamins A and C, and potassium, McCoy said.

"Sweet potatoes have more potassium than bananas," McCoy said.

The problem, McCoy said, is that most of the good stuff lies just beneath the skin. You negate many of the nutritional benefits if you peel it off and add sugar, butter and other not-so-good-for-you stuff to your already sweet potatoes.

Bye-bye sweet potatoes with marshmallows, cinnamon and sugar.

Comparing carbohydrates

Potatoes naturally have less sugar than sweet potatoes - 1.7 grams for a baked potato compared with 6.48 for a sweet potato.

They also have another advantage, starchiness, which comes in handy when frying, Brown said. If you fry sweet potatoes, which have less starch, "it's not going to be real crunchy," Brown said. To fry a sweet potato with better results, Brown recommends leaving the skins on and cutting them like steak fries.

"If you do shoestrings, forget about it," he said.

According to the USDA, potatoes are the fourth-most consumed food crop in the world. In a recent USDA report, Americans consumed a total of 125.3 pounds of potatoes, processed or otherwise, in 2007, according to USDA data. The USDA reported people ate an average 86.3 pounds of processed potatoes per person - this includes frozen french fries and chips.

Variety also makes potatoes a mainstay on the Thanksgiving table, giving them more of a presence than sweet potatoes.

Back in Illinois, my grandmother is a fan of boiled new potatoes, which you can still find at the grocer, served with green beans and baby carrots. My mother does au gratin in Boston - most potato varieties will work there. I like mashed red potatoes with the skin on.

There are even purple potatoes that will mash purple, said Julie Stinar, of Evensong Farm near Sharpsburg.

"They're lavender," Stinar said.

Evensong farm has grown purple potatoes in past years but did not this year. The potatoes usually harvest in mid-summer. You might be able to find them in gourmet specialty shops or on the Web, Stinar said.

The Herald-Mail has rounded up some sweet potato and potato recipes for you and your family to try. McCoy said that ultimately, it's not so much about what we eat.

"Our portion control is what causes problems," McCoy said, "especially at Thanksgiving."

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