Although white potatoes are the most-consumed vegetable in America, the sweet potato lags behind and is often confused with the common yam, which is actually a different vegetable entirely. Overlooking the sweet potato or confusing it with something else is a mistake because it may just be the world’s most healthful food.
It is a perennial that is grown as an annual and springs forth from underground roots with stems that can be as long as twenty feet. The leaves vary in size, shape and color but usually are green with purple markings. They also produce flowers that are white and pale purple, but these rarely appear.
The orange-colored tuber probably originated in Central or South America, though they no longer grow wild in those regions. It is believed that the sweet potato has been cultivated by those living in the areas for more than 5,000 years, and some fossils in the Andes date the sweet potato to activities dating back 8,000 to 10,000 years. It was the perfect migratory food, compact, nutrition-dense and delicious, which is why people likely carried it with them on their explorations in those early times. It gradually spread from the Americas across the Pacific to New Guinea, Polynesia, Indonesia and New Zealand.
Christopher Columbus brought back sweet potatoes when he first visited the Americas, which spread through Spain and gradually throughout the warmer regions of Europe. They were then brought to the Philippines by Spanish explorers and soon arrived in Africa and the South Pacific, thanks to the Portuguese.