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, B-6, C and E. The leaves provide fiber, too, along with protein, vitamins A, C and B-6, 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.
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