Have you noticed the gorgeous, violet-hued desserts popping up on Instagram and Pinterest lately? The star ingredient is ube (pronounced OO-BAE), a purple yam that can be mashed or pureed and incorporated into sweet treats. There's ube ice cream, pudding, frosting, doughnuts, even pop tarts.
But can it really make your favorite dessert healthier?
Ube is in the same family as root veggies like sweet potatoes and yuca, and has long been a staple in the Philippines. With a nutrient profile similar to orange-colored yams, one cup of ube contains almost 40 grams of carbohydrates (5 of which are dietary fiber), some protein (roughly 2 grams per cup), and no fat. Like the more common yams, ube is packed with immune-supporting vitamins A and C, as well as potassium, a mineral that acts as a natural de-bloater, and helps regulate heart function and blood pressure while fighting muscle cramps.
But ube's purple pigment provides beneficial antioxidants. A study published in the journal Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry found that purple yams from the Philippines contain several antioxidants, including anthocyanins, which have been linked to anti-inflammatory effects, brain health and protection against heart disease and cancer.
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Anthocyanins may also have some fat-fighting potential. In a recent Japanese study, published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers fed groups of mice a fatty diet with and without anthocyanins. The mice given anthocyanins didn’t gain body weight or body fat, and didn’t experience a rise in blood sugar, insulin, and blood fats. Researchers concluded that anthocyanins may act as a “functional food component” that offers protection against obesity and diabetes—at least in mice.
This doesn’t exactly mean you should feast on unlimited ube treats, of course. While ube desserts can be made with nutritious, plant-based add-ins, like coconut or almond milk, other recipes use ingredients like sweetened condensed milk. And a purple yam wrapped around a pastry crust made from refined carbs and sugar definitely doesn't qualify as health food. Plus, any time you eat more carbs than your body can use for fuel, the surplus can prevent weight loss or lead to weight gain, even when the carbs are bundled with fiber and antioxidants.
Bottom line: Ube can add nutrients to any dish, including sweets. But still limit ube desserts to occasional indulgences, and create balance with smart strategies. For example, if you’re going to order ube ice cream for dessert, choose a lower carb entrée, like a protein-topped salad, rather than a sandwich or wrap. And try incorporating purple yams into savory meals in place of other “good carbs” like quinoa, sweet potato, and brown rice. Ube is delicious oven-baked, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with rosemary, or sautéed in EVOO and garlic—no added sugar needed.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and consultant for the New York Yankees. See her full bio here.