I always love going to Central or South America because I know there will be oodles of one of my favorite foods. Crispy and thin like a chip; sliced, smashed and cooked; or ripe, cooked in butter and cinnamon for breakfast. I love plantains! Sometimes when I crave a crunchy, salty snack, plantains tend to be a healthier option than greasy potato chips or french fries cooked in unhealthy fats.
Plantains grow plentifully in Central and South America, and in Africa, and are often used in place of rice, bread or potatoes for a starch. They look just like large bananas, but are usually never eaten raw; they are cooked as either green plantains or as ripe, sweet plantains. If you’ve ever eaten at a Brazilian restaurant, or spent time in Mexico, Costa Rica or Nicaragua, you’ve probably had fried plantains. Plantain chips with guacamole is amazing! Fried plantain chips are starting to become more popular and are now often available in the snack aisle at many grocery stores in the U.S. as well.
As a source of carbohydrates, plantains are pretty good—especially if you want to avoid grains and white potatoes, which are often high glycemic and inflammatory. I also like plantains because they are an excellent source of resistant starch, don’t soak up as much oil as potato chips, and have lots of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
What is resistant starch? Resistant starch is a type of carbohydrate that is not broken down during digestion (like refined grains and flours). Resistant starch fills you up, but passes through the body without being digested. This helps to feed the all-important gut bacteria, makes you feel full, boost immunity, and help control blood sugar. Studies have shown health benefits from this type of starch, and this particular study actually shows that replacing just 5% of total dietary carb intake with resistant starch can actually significantly boost fat burning, post-meal!
Green bananas and plantains carry lots of resistant starch, but cooking them changes the resistant starch into a more absorbable carbohydrate, so in order to get the benefits of resistant starch from plantains, its best to eat them dehydrated with a drizzle of olive oil, or coconut oil, and sea salt.
Plantains are also important to eat as a ‘prebiotic’. Prebiotics are foods containing healthy fibers and resistant starches that help to feed and maintain a healthy gut microbiome, which as we now know is one of the primary keys to good physical AND mental health.
Plantains contain a variety of nutrients and can be beneficial to the body in various ways. One cup of plantains provides about a fifth of your recommended daily fiber intake, which aids in digestion and helps things to move along better—also lowering your risk of colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulitis. While not exactly a low-glycemic food, plantains do help to fill you up because of their fiber, so they are better for weight loss. And in an interesting study, from International Journal of Research in Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences, dried plantain showed a significant ulcer-healing effect on gastric ulcers. According to the study, dried plantain is actually able to stimulate the growth of the inner lining of the stomach!
Plantains contain a nice-sized amount of vitamin C—about 35% of the recommended amount. Vitamin C is valuable as an immune-booster, and a raw material for creating collagen that helps our bones, skin and joints stay healthy and young. Plantains also contain vitamin A, another immune booster and antioxidant. Both vitamin A and C are also very important in wound healing and infection-fighting. Vitamin A also aids the eyes, helping maintain good vision.
Plantains are excellent sources of both potassium and magnesium—both valuable minerals–vital to maintaining a healthy electrolyte balance. Electrolytes are necessary for our bodies to keep the appropriate fluid ratios in the cells. Potassium is also necessary as an electrolyte to maintain a healthy heart beat, and helps to regulate and balance out sodium in the body.
Over 80% of the population is short on magnesium, an essential mineral for about 300 different functions in the body, including turning food into energy, and helping burn fat. Plantains are an excellent source of this important element that also helps maintain blood pressure, heartbeat, and aid in calcium absorption for bones and teeth. Magnesium also helps to lower blood sugar levels, help prevent headaches, and allow restful sleep.
Plantains also help to promote a calm and healthy mood by providing vitamin B6. B6 is valuable for brain and nerve transmission, helps make serotonin and norepinephrine—brain chemicals that help us feel good. Plantains also help to lower homocysteine levels in the body—a harmful amino acid that contributes to inflammation and heart disease.
Plantains are now available at most grocery stores in the produce section, and can often be purchased green, yellow or black. Green plantains are starchy (good resistant starch) and are not as sweet. They make a great substitute for potatoes or rice. Green plantains must be peeled and can then be dried or baked for the healthiest version of plantain chips. Try this recipe for baked plantains from Paleohacks. Fried plantain chips from the store are not the healthiest snack you can get.
Yellow plantains are slightly sweeter than green plantains, have less healthy starches in them and more sugars, but are great in soups, stews, and cooked in place of sweet potatoes. Black plantains (referring to the skin) are sweet and usually cooked in maple syrup and cinnamon as a breakfast accompaniment or as a dessert.
Plantains can be used in recipes in a variety of ways:
- Baked, boiled, grilled, roasted or fried
- Mashed or chopped, in stew and soup
- Dried and ground down into flour
- In Peru, plantains are boiled and mixed with water and spices to make a drink called chapo
- Fried plantains, healthier than corn chips and potato chips
Plantains can be a very healthy, fiber rich, fat burning snack or side dish, but beware, as packaged and fried plantain chips may be fried in unhealthy fats, and many of their nutrients and healthy starch cooked out. Best to enjoy your own homemade plantains in a variety of recipes. Because plantains have a high carbohydrate content and glycemic load, they can raise blood sugar. Those with diabetes or pre-diabetes should be careful to pair plantains with other foods that can maintain proper blood sugar levels.
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