Looking like a spud on steroids, taro is a commonly eaten commodity in areas such as Hawaii, India, Southeast Asia and other warm areas of the world, the reason it’s dubbed “potato of the tropics.” Colocasia esculenta (also called poi in its mashed form) thrives in warm, tropical climates due to the abundance of humidity and heat. The fact that taro is one of the few crops that thrive in flooded areas is significant to its wide use in many different areas, as its petioles, or stalks, can transfer even while under water.
More than 11.3 million metric tons of taro plants/roots are cultivated around the world each year.1 A perennial herb as well as a bulbo-tuber or corm, taro has gigantic heart-shaped leaves and can grow as tall as 6 feet. Its skin is fibrous and sometimes hairy, with concentric rings around the outside. As the featured video above notes, large taro tubers have more starch, which is often best for cooking.
They should be cut so the flat surface can be used as a base for easier peeling. Taro can be cubed, steamed until tender and mashed with a fork to make a Thai dessert called Bua Loy (which translates to “floating lotus) and involves chewy rice balls, sweet coconut soup and mashed taro.
With a nutty flavor comparable to water chestnuts, the color inside is similar to a potato, or has purple flecks and streaks, which you may know if you’ve ever eaten vegetable chips, typically containing other root veggies such as batata, sweet potato and parsnip.
You can buy taro to use much as you would a potato. Frozen products and taro flour are also available in ethnic stores. A popular way to prepare is to slice them thin using a mandolin or the slicer gizmo in your food processor to make taro chips. Place them on a baking sheet, lightly brush the slices with coconut oil and bake at 350 degrees F until they’re crisp — about 15 minutes, according to Martha Stewart.2
Place them on a paper towel to cool and give them a sprinkle of sea salt. They can be served with a dip like hummus. It should be noted that while the leaves are also edible, both taro leaves and the root itself must be cooked, as the raw form is toxic.3 Further, “Taro contains oxalic acid, the acridity of the leaves and corms is known to cause irritation of the skin and mouth; high levels or prolonged consumption of oxalic acid can produce physical side effects.”4 Properly cooking taro removes this concern, however.
Taro: Good for Gut Health and Much More
Far from a being simply a cheap food source, taro is a bona fide superfood, containing high amounts of potassium, known to be a heart-healthy nutrient as it makes fluid transfers between your body’s membranes and tissues easier. There’s also significant fiber, calcium and iron, plus vitamins A, B6, C and E. The leaves provide fiber, too, along with protein, vitamins A, C and B6, thiamin, copper, calcium and folate.
Besides helping to keep you regular to promote digestive health, fiber helps regulate your insulin and glucose levels to normalize your blood sugar. One serving contains 27 percent of the Daily Reference Intake (DRI). Further, one study shows that fermented taro, a poi dish, contains even more gut-friendly bacteria than yogurt.5 Cryptoxanthin is the taro ingredient that’s responsible for lowering your risk of developing lung and oral cancers, but powerful antioxidants certainly help in this regard.
Upon eating taro, your vision may also benefit due to antioxidant beta-carotenes, and your skin gets a boost of health from the presence of vitamin E and vitamin A. Additionally, wounds and blemishes heal more rapidly and wrinkles are less visible. Lesser but still significant amounts of copper and iron help prevent anemia and aid in healthy blood circulation, while at the same time helping to produce red blood cells for oxygen transit.
All these nutrients combine to “up” your immune system. Vitamin C creates more white blood cells, which act as a defense against disease-causing bacteria, and helps to detoxify your body.6 Amino acids and omega-3 fats contained in taro are also very beneficial to your overall health, but particularly your heart. Altogether, the myriad of health benefits from all the vitamins and minerals make taro an uncommonly nutritious food.
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Another nutritionally beneficial aspect of taro is that when its granules are broken down they’re only one-tenth of the size of white potato granules, so it’s easily digestible. As a review, taro consumption, according to Organic Facts, is recognized for its ability to:
|Improve digestion||Help prevent certain cancers|
|Lower blood sugar levels7||Improve your vision|
|Help prevent heart disease||Support your muscles and nerves|
|Improve your skin||Increase circulation|
|Decrease your blood pressure||Strengthen your immune system|
Taro as an Antibacterial Food Preservative
Another benefit of taro is its antibacterial potential, especially in regard to its development as a food preservative. A U.S. Army-based study from 2000 to 2001 was designed to revitalize Hawaii’s economy. Congress allocated funds for the development of Hawaiian industries and products, and included poi, “a purplish to grayish paste made of ground taro.” According to the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command Soldier Systems Center:
“In an attempt to understand the natural fermentation of taro to poi, bacteria have been isolated from freeze-dried poi produced in Hawaii. Bacteria believed to be involved in the fermentation have been isolated and identified. It was determined that taro can support the growth of bacteriocin-producing bacteria.
Bacteriocins are small peptides that are naturally produced by food-safe organisms that can inhibit food spoilage/pathogenic bacteria. A relatively dilute solution of taro is needed to support the growth of the bacteria and the production of the bacteriocin.”8
In 2005, Research Gate noted that burrito sandwiches using taro were field tested as an intermediate moisture (IM) product for military use and tested for bacteria after periods of seven and 14 days, ending with a 56-day period, after which the abstract noted that by all appearances, fermented taro can be a good preservation ingredient, although further studies were recommended.9
The Decline of Taro in Hawaii
One of the oldest crops on the planet, one study described archeologists’ discovery of stone mortars and pestles in the Solomon Islands with evidence of taro being used around 28,000 years ago. The first European navigators found it being cultivated in both Japan and New Zealand, and accounts from Captain James Cook’s travels note taro cultivation in Maori plantations in 1769.10 But in Hawaii, taro and poi were both sacred.
Since Western culture moved into the Hawaiian Islands beginning in 1778, taro, once a major crop grown for centuries and covering as much as 35,000 acres, has declined so sharply that it’s now estimated to cover just 350 acres, attributed to the influx of wheat and ricebrought in from Asia and the U.S., as well as the invasion of new diseases. In the late 1940s, a large sugar company diverted the water source needed for taro fields, effectively shutting down production.
The last sugar plantation closed recently, however, so water rights can again be attained for taro farmers’ use. It’s interesting to note, however, that “once taro is cultivated the plant does not naturally produce viable seeds, and is predominantly vegetatively propagated,” one study11 noted.
However, there’s a new interest in this staple crop, called kalo, as local farmers produce about 75 percent of what is consumed on the island, which amounts to about 6.5 million pounds every year. Ironically, much of that — about 2 million pounds — is imported from Fiji. As a crop, taro is returning, but it’s a slow process, Civil Eats12 reports.
Traditional Culture in Regard to Food
Traditional Hawaiian culture has admired a more full-figured physique, and it’s had a detrimental impact on the entire region. The World Health Organization (WHO) described the Pacific Islands as the most obese nations in the world, as the average population for obesityranges from 35 percent to 50 percent; in the Cook Islands, it’s just over 50 percent, and Hawaii is right next door.
About 1 in every 5 children is obese, and the rate of early-onset diabetes is high. Even though overall health has been improving, the above statistics are a microcosm of the region’s overall health. Native Hawaiians’ life expectancy is six years lower than the state average, a direct result of the high incidences of metabolic disorders, i.e., obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and higher rates of stroke and cancer.
In the late 1980s, a study by Dr. Terry Shintani and nutritionist Claire Hughes that simulated what Hawaiians ate before “civilization” showed up. Study subjects ate as much taro, poi, sweet potatoes, breadfruit and fruit as they wanted, as well as small amounts of fish and chicken. In just 21 days, participants had lost an average of 17 pounds and had lower levels of blood pressure and blood sugar and improved cholesterol.
Shintani wrote “The Hawaii Diet” to help steer the islanders’ diets in a better direction, both naturally and with local foods, and leads community programs and health workshops through his nonprofit Hawaii Health Foundation.
CNN quoted Temo Waqanivalu, program officer with WHO’s Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases Department, a Fijian native who’s battled the issue for over a decade. He calls obesity and related illnesses a “deadly epidemic” and said he’s “seen the epidemic evolve firsthand, aided by the cultural acceptance of bigger bodies as beautiful.”13
“Up to 95 percent of the adult population are overweight or obese in some countries. In Polynesia the perception of ‘big is beautiful’ does exist, (but) big is beautiful, fat is not. That needs to get through.”14
The ‘Western Diet’ Now Part of the Pacific Island Legacy
One of the problems with these populations, says Dr. Jonathan Shaw, associate director of Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, Australia, is its collective genetic predisposition, “and when exposed to Western lifestyles results in high rates of diabetes, (it’s) undoubtedly caused by high rates of obesity.”
Worldwide, Waqanivalu observed, poor-quality and highly energy-dense food is the cheapest, and processed food is both easy to prepare and cheap. Fishermen sell the fish they catch to buy canned tuna, and a bottle of soda is often cheaper than a bottle of water. Half a century ago, people worked their land, but urbanization and “sedentary office cultures” have exacerbated the problem. According to CNN:
“The epidemic began through the tropical region turning its back on traditional diets of fresh fish and vegetables and replacing them with highly processed and energy-dense food such as white rice, flour, canned foods, processed meats and soft drinks imported from other countries. One of the root causes of the change is the price tag.”15
A New Focus and Renewed Hope
While the decline of taro production definitely coincides with the decline of the average Native Hawaiian’s health, there’s been a renewed focus on taro production, as well as on healthy eating. Several former taro production ponds have been resurrected, so to speak; Maui local Hōkūao Pellegrino is one farmer who’s using ancestral land to grow 45 varieties of organic taro, Civil Eats reports:
“While pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, Pellegrino, his father, and his mentor, Kanaʻe Keawe, a professor of ethnobotany and master craftsman, began to clear and restore his family’s taro pond.
In 2004, after being chosen by ‘Onipaʻa Nā Hui Kalo, a statewide organization of kalo farmers, for their annual restoration project, Noho’ana Farm was reborn. Pellegrino recalls, ‘We had 125 people come and help open our very first loʻi. Kalo farmers from the Big Island to Kauaʻi and everywhere in between; family members, cousins, neighbors — it was huge.'”16
Besides gearing the farm so processes can become a teaching tool for next-generation Hawaiians, several native “value-added products,” such as poi, taro paste (paʻiʻai) and a popular taro and coconut dessert called kulolo, are sold at the lowest price possible. “I want people to eat healthy food at reasonable prices,” he said. “Poi should be available to everybody, and at a cost that they can afford.”17
Meanwhile, Pellegrino’s farm is an example of how innovative kalo-based farm-to-table innovation can change the landscape. Over recent years, Maui is a new beacon on the map as a food-driven destination; Noho’ana Farm is a supplier for Maui-born chef de cuisine Isaac Bancaco, who gained a following for using local produce like taro and other “canoe foods” and sustainable seafood, and winning Maui Nō Ka ʻOi Magazine’s 2014 Chef of the Year.18
Over the last few decades, schools and corporations have been working with governmental entities throughout the islands to bring about a change in the mindset of native populations, combat and change obesity and diabetes percentages, control the market, improve trade and adopt school policies that enhance health. The nutritional aspects of taro are being looked at as a viable commodity for “fixing” the Hawaiian diet, and they may add valuable nutrition to diets worldwide as well.
- 1 Organic Facts 2017
- 2 Martha Stewart Taro Chips April 2007
- 3 The Kitchn April 19, 2016
- 4, 10, 11 Academia From Poi to Fufu 2017
- 5 Nutra Clin Care. 2004; 7(2): 69–74
- 6 Style Craze June 4, 2017
- 7 Research Gate February 2015
- 8, 9 Research Gate November 2005
- 12, 16, 17 Civil Eats July 6, 2017
- 13, 14, 15 CNN May 1, 2015
- 18 Maui Nō Ka ʻOi Magazine May-June 2014
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