Keep your heart healthy with Hawaiʻi-grown staples

Written by Kirthi Hagalwadi, Masters Student in Public Health at San Jose State University and Hawaiʻi ʻUlu Co-op Intern February-April, 2023.

Did you know diet can play an important role in keeping your heart healthy?

In Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiians (NH) and other Pacific Islanders (PI) have disproportionately high rates of heart disease (~20%) and related non-communicable diseases such as – obesity (~74%) and diabetes (~20%). For comparison, the rates of these diseases for non-Hispanic Whites are ~7%, ~54%, and <6%, respectively.

Obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease among Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (NHPI)

This disparity may be rooted in the disconnection from traditional food sources due to the impact of colonization, cultural loss, and economic deprivation. Decreased access to healthy, locally grown foods leads to a calorie-dense diet, whereas improving access to lower glycemic, locally grown staples would mitigate these risks.

It is critical to consume foods high in antioxidants and vitamins to keep your heart healthy, and many of these heart-healthy ingredients are available in Hawaii's locally grown staples.



Did you know that having a happy, healthy heart decreases the onset of cardiovascular risk factors, such as diabetes? Antioxidants such as lutein, vitamins (A, B6, C, and E), zeaxanthin, and anthocyanin are known to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, an abundance of carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin help mitigate the risk of cardiovascular disease. These antioxidants and carotenoids can easily be found in Hawaiʻi-grown starches, such as ʻulu (breadfruit), ʻuala (sweet potato), palaʻai (pumpkin or winter squash), and kalo (taro).  More information about how each of these local staple crops support heart health – along with ʻono recipes to try at home – is shared below!

‘Ulu (breadfruit): There is approximately 16 to 53 grams of amylose per 100g of ‘ulu (breadfruit) flour [21]. In general, the high amylose content of breadfruit helps with blood glucose regulation.

Additionally, there is about 2.4g of dietary fiber per 100g of cooked ‘ulu that helps with insulin sensitivity regulation. Regulated blood glucose levels are increased by more insulin secretion both of which help mitigate the effects of diabetes, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease [12, 33]. Additionally,‘ulu of the Ma’afala variety contains 13.9 micrograms of beta-carotene per 100 grams of ‘ulu [7]. 

Roasted ʻUlu with Cilantro Yogurt Sauce

RECIPE: Roasted ʻUlu with Cilantro Yogurt Sauce


Hearty ʻUlu Corn Chowder

RECIPE: Hearty ʻUlu Corn Chowder 

‘Uala (sweet potato): has high antioxidant levels and is especially rich in anthocyanin [5]. This antioxidant is responsible for the beautiful purple color in Okinawan sweet potatoes. Additionally, it is rich in vitamins A and C to promote heart health [22]. Purple-fleshed potatoes are known to have inhibitory enzymes that help improve blood sugar regulation and the onset of lifestyle-based diseases [17]. It also helps improve blood sugar regulation.

Burmese Style Squash & Okinawan Sweet Potato Salad

RECIPE: Burmese Style Squash & Okinawan Sweet Potato Salad


ʻUlu & Okinawan Sweet Potato Salad

RECIPE: ʻUlu & Okinawan Sweet Potato Salad

Palaʻai (pumpkin): contains the carotenoids lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene [2].These carotenoids are responsible for the yellow and orange colors found in fruits and vegetables [3] .So the next time you shop, just think about the benefits of buying beautifully colored fruits and vegetables!

 Spiced Coconut Pumpkin SoupRECIPE: Spiced Coconut Pumpkin Soup

Kalo (taro): contains 4.1g of dietary fiber and 591mg of potassium per 100g serving [14]. Additionally, kalo is rich in vitamin E at 2.38mg per 100g serving, which accounts for 20% of the recommended dietary allowances.

RECIPE: Kalo Poke

Fun Fact: Did you know that our locally grown staples have a low (<55) to moderate (56-69) glycemic index (GI) rating that mitigates the effect of diabetes [6, 10, 13, 19, 20, 32]. Additionally, they are also a great source of potassium! This is beneficial as potassium decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and regulates blood pressure [18]. A diet with low potassium intake can make people more susceptible to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

The chart below shows our locally grown staples: breadfruit, Okinawan sweet potato, kabocha squash, and taro. It is evident that potassium levels are generally higher in our local staples compared to commonly imported ones.


Glycemic Index (GI)


Breadfruit (Ma’afala) cooked

Low-to-moderate (47-72) 


Okinawan Sweet Potato

Low (55)


Kabocha Squash (frozen)

Moderate (66)


Taro Root (cooked)

Low (53)


White Rice (cooked, long-grain, enriched)

High (73)


Brown Rice (cooked, long-grain)

Moderate (68)


White Potato (baked, flesh, without salt)

High (78)


Wheat (wheat flour, whole-grain, soft wheat)

Low (54)


Blueberries (raw)

Low (53)


Carrots (raw)

Low (39)


 [13], [32], [6], [10], [20], [19], [22], [23], [24], [25], [26], [27], [28],  [29], [30], [31]


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