A bunch of green and yellow plantains

Fresh plantains look like overgrown bananas, and while the two fruits share some similarities nutritionally, there are some important differences. Most notably, green plantains have more starch and less sugars than bananas.

Plantains are staples in Latino, Afro-Caribbean, and African cuisines, typically eaten cooked as a starchy side dish. You might be seeing plantains more often in the produce aisle, as U.S. imports have increased 41 percent between 2013 and 2018.

If you’ve never eaten plantains, you might be wondering whether they’re worth a try.

Plantain Nutrition

A half-cup of boiled green plantains has 83 calories, 20 grams of carbohydrates, and 1.5 grams of sugars. By comparison, a half-cup of cooked white rice has 103 calories, 22 grams of carbs, and zero sugars.

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Although those numbers are very close, plantains have a few advantages over white rice. “They have more vitamins and minerals, and more fiber as well,” says Isabella Ferrari, MCN, R.D., L.D., clinical dietitian at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. In particular, plantains are decent sources of magnesium, potassium (more than bananas), vitamin A, and vitamin K. They also supply some vitamin C and B vitamins, such as thiamin and riboflavin. A half-cup of plantains has about 2 grams of fiber, compared with less than 1 gram in white rice. (Your daily fiber goal should be 25 to 30 grams.)  

Green plantains are also a top source of resistant starch, a type of fiber that’s not found in many foods. Resistant starch passes through your system largely undigested, so blood sugar levels rise more slowly after you eat it than when you eat other types of carbs. This may help improve type 2 diabetes and control weight. Plus, resistant starch helps maintain a healthy microbiome in the gut because it feeds the body’s good bacteria. It also helps with the feeling of fullness after meals.

Yellow plantains are sweeter than green ones but they’re still mostly prepared in savory ways. More of the starch has turned to sugars, so they aren’t as good a source of resistant starch as green plantains and their nutritional profile is a bit different as well. They are richer in magnesium, potassium, and vitamins C and K. A half-cup of cooked yellow plantains has 108 calories, 29 grams of carbs, 15 grams of sugars, and about 2 grams of fiber.

Preparation Matters

As with many starchy foods, the problem with plantains isn’t the fruit itself—it’s the way it's prepared. 

Tostones or patacones, twice-fried slices of green plantain, and maduros or tajadas, fried ripe plantains, are popular in Latin American and Caribbean countries. And Puerto Ricans love mofongo, mashed, pan-fried green plantains mixed with garlic and pork rinds or chicharrones. These are very greasy, because “plantains absorb a lot of the fat from the oil that you’re frying them with,” Ferrari says. 

Ripe (yellow) plantains are often served for dessert, with added sugars (such as a syrup) and cinnamon and cloves. 

“Although a tasty cultural experience, fried preparations and those with added sugars should not be consumed frequently,”  says Michelle Schelske-Santos, Ph.D., professor of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. “They add calories that may result in weight gain or obesity, and have metabolic effects that increase the risk of developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.”

And then there are plantain chips. "Claims like gluten-free, organic, and no GMOs on packages of plantain chips may give you the impression that they're a healthy snack choice, but like potato chips, they're usually fried and salted," says Ferrari. You get about 140 calories, 8 g of fat, and over 100 mg of sodium in an ounce of chips (about 20). 

Fortunately, healthier recipes are equally delicious and extremely simple to prepare.

Green plantains are best boiled like potatoes. Slice off the tips of the plantain cut the fruit in three or four chunks and remove the skin. Boil in just enough water to cover the chunks for 20 to 30 minutes, until soft. Add a pinch of salt when the plantain is beginning to soften. 

You can top them with a mix of minced olives, peppercorns, onions, and peppers sauteéd lightly in a little bit of olive oil. Or mash the plantains, adding a little olive oil, onion powder, and a small amount of the water you boiled them in. You can also cook slices of green plantains, along with onions and peppers in a low-sodium chicken broth and serve like a soup.  

Another way to serve plantains is to make a slit in the cooked chunks and add a little bit of low-fat mozzarella or queso fresco (fresh white cheese used in Hispanic cuisine) in the pockets.  

A simple way to cook yellow plantains is to slice the ends off and wrap the fruit, still in its skin, in aluminum foil. Bake at 350° F for 20 minutes. Or wrap it in a paper towel or waxed paper and microwave it on high for two to three minutes. This preparation requires no seasoning because it brings out the plantain’s natural sugars.