Plantains are one of the most beloved foods in the Caribbean. They have a delectable sweet but savory quality that makes them go well with almost any meal.
As a dietitian and proud Cuban-American, one of the questions I hear the most is how to make healthier plantains. But the truth is, plantains are a very healthy source of carbohydrates, providing gut-healthy fiber and plenty of vitamins and minerals.
While plantains are very nutritious, you may want to consider cooking method or the ripeness of your plantain, depending on your own health goals and medical history.
If you’ve ever felt you had to give up plantains to follow a healthy diet, keep reading! In this article you’ll learn more about the health benefits of plantains, and how to build a healthy plate with plantains.
Let’s get started!
What are plantains
Plantains are a staple food in the Caribbean, playing a major role in Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican food. Plantain also shows up in dishes from southern Mexico and other areas of Central America .
Although plantains originated in Southeast Asia, they were introduced to Latin America by way of Africa. These starchy fruits grow well in tropical regions, so they are a good fit for Caribbean climates and food.
Plantains may look like bananas but they are different. Plantains are starchier and have an earthier flavor. What’s most interesting about plantains is that they can be either sweet or savory, depending on how ripe they are when you cook them.
Are plantains vegetables?
Many people get confused about whether plantains are a fruit or a vegetable. Technically, they grow as a fruit. But in the nutrition world, we consider them starchy vegetables like a potato.
This means plantains go on the carb section of your plate. But don’t let this discourage you, plantains are a healthy carb! (More on that later.)
How do you eat plantains?
There are so many different plantain dishes. The common theme is that plantains should always be cooked.
I mean, could they be eaten raw? Yes, it most likely would not hurt you. But it would not be very pleasant.
Plantains can be eaten sweet or savory, depending on how ripe or green the plantain is when it’s cooked. Below are some examples of common Latin American dishes using plantains:
Savory plantain dishes:
Tostones / patacones: Fried savory plantain patties
Mangú: Garlicky, savory mashed plantain commonly served with breakfast in the Dominican Republic (there’s a very similar dish in Cuba called fufú)
Mofongo: a plantain mash from Puerto Rico, the main difference from mangú being that mofongo is fried before it’s mashed.
Sweet plantain dishes:
Amarillos (aka maduros): fried, caramelized sweet plantains. Can be served as a side dish or a dessert.
Canoas: Ripe whole plantains stuffed with meat, served as a main dish
Sweet OR savory dishes:
Plantain chips (aka mariquitas)
Plantains may also be featured in soups or stews, used to make casseroles, or even in a Caribbean take on lasagna.
Are plantains good for you?
One of the most common questions I get as a dietitian is how to make plantains healthier. In reality, I believe plantains are healthy! They offer plenty of health-promoting nutrients and can form the base of a very satisfying meal.
Depending on your nutrition needs, you may want to take into account how plantains are cooked and serving size when planning your balanced meals.
Plantains nutrition facts
100 g (~⅔ cup) of green plantain has (1):
29 g Carbohydrate
2.2 g Fiber
24.5 g Starch
2.3 g Sugar
289 mg of Potassium (~16% daily needs*)
0.1 mg vitamin B1 (~9% daily needs)
0.5 mg vitamin B5 (~11% daily needs)
0.2 mg vitamin B6 (~16% daily needs)
9 mg vitamin C (~12% daily needs)**
100 g (~⅔ cup) of ripe plantain has (2):
41 g Carbohydrate:
2.2 g Fiber
17.9 g Starch
21.3 g Sugar
477 mg of Potassium (~18% daily needs)
0.1 mg vitamin B1 (~12% daily needs)
0.5 mg vitamin B5 (~11% daily neds)
0.2 mg vitamin B6 (~16% daily needs)
16 mg vitamin C (~21% daily needs)**
*Daily needs estimates are based on an average adult woman’s needs
**Differences in vitamin C content may be due to cooking method analyzed (boiled vs baked).
As you can see, plantains in general are a good source of vitamins C, B1, and B6. Plantains are also a great source of potassium.
Plantains are also complex carbs rich in fiber. There are some differences between ripe and unripe plantains in terms of sugar and carb content. For the average person, this will not make a big difference in your health, but certain people may need to keep this in mind.
All plantains are rich in fiber, and green plantains are especially rich in resistant starch (3). Both resistant starch and fiber can improve insulin sensitivity, improve digestive health, and help you feel full between meals (4,5,6,7 ).
This may be why research has started to explore the potential benefits of plantain-based meals for blood-sugar levels (8).
Plantains may also be heart healthy! The fiber in plantains can lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, while the potassium in plantains may help lower blood pressure (9).
What about fried plantains?
The way you cook your food does have an impact on its nutrition.
Many vitamins are sensitive to heat and other factors, so they may be impacted by cooking methods. This is true of all cooking methods, not just frying. In fact, boiling may produce the highest nutrient loss of the common cooking methods (10,11).
However, nutrition is not just about vitamins and minerals. Every cooking method has its pros and cons.
Even though fried foods retain vitamins fairly well, there is still a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes with frequent intake (4 times/week or more) (12). The higher risk may be due to chemical changes cooking oils undergo at the high temperatures needed for frying (13).
And despite higher nutrient loss, boiled plantains also have a lower gylcemic index (how quickly a food raises blood sugar) than roasted or fried plantains (14).
The average person would do well to limit fried food intake to 2-3 times/week, including fried plantains. However, a meal having one fried element does not automatically make the rest of the meal unhealthy or mean that it doesn’t also have other benefits (fiber, vitamins, minerals).
Building a balanced plate
The best serving size of plantains depends your body, your activity levels, your medical history, and your goals.
Instead of focusing on precise measurements for your serving sizes, try focusing on what else you can add to your plate that can help you feel full and meet all of your nutrition needs.
Plantains provide carbs and fiber. To round out your balanced plate you will also need:
This might look like serving your plantains alongside lechon asado (protein) plus a tomato and avocado salad (non-starchy vegetables and healthy fat).
While individual serving sizes vary, a good starting point is to build a plate as follows:
½ cup carbohydrates
3 oz protein (approximately ½ cup)
1 cup non-starchy vegetables
From there, assess your hunger, fullness, energy, and other body signals to see if you need more or less of anything.
How to make plantains:
There are so many ways to enjoy plantains, there’s a recipe for every skill level and taste!
Here are some ideas for how to incorporate plantains into your meals:
Baked mariquitas (healthy plantain chips)
Mofongo by by Salima’s Kitchen
Aguají (Dominican Plantain Soup) by dominicancooking.com
Ecuadorian Baked Plantains with Cheese by Laylita’s recipes
The big picture
Plantains are a staple of Caribbean and Central American food, and can provide us with plenty of energy, fiber, and important nutrients like Potassium.
You don’t need to be afraid of them or feel like they can’t be part of a healthy diet. What matters most is your overall dietary pattern and balance.
Plantains are a healthy carbohydrate choice, and can make a healthy balanced meal when combined with protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables.
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