Kalo Nutrition and Health Benefits

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

Kalo (taro) is the most culturally significant of our Hawaiʻi-grown staples, traditionally viewed as an elder with a reciprocal relationship to kanaka (people). Kalo is actually part of Hawaii’s creation story. Kalo is believed to be the firstborn son of sky father and earth mother. The son was stillborn and after being buried, he grew to become the kalo plant also called Haloa, which means “everlasting breath.”

Kalo contains a lot of nutritional benefits and is suitable for all ages! Recently, there has been a rise in interest in indigenous crops and diets [2]. This is related to greater awareness of indigenous wisdom and knowledge as an additional worldview that provides benefits to our society for personal, community, and environmental health. These benefits include, but are not limited to, food security and preservation of culture. 

In Hawaiʻi, kalo is traditionally served as the staple starch accompanying a meal. It is usually prepared by steaming, known as kalo paʻa, or by pounding into paʻiʻai or poi. Poi typically has more water added than paʻiʻai and is an ideal method of preparation for patients with digestive disorders; poi can be eaten fresh or fermented and is rich in B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin C, and minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and calcium [1;8]. Baby food that was prepared in a similar method to poi has been shown to reduce infants’ discomfort from health conditions like diarrhea and pneumonia [8]. 


Kalo leaves

Kalo cannot be consumed raw due to a condition called acridity [6;7].  This acridity can cause swelling of lips, mouth and throat, though more commonly itchiness and pain when raw or insufficiently cooked tissues are eaten. The cause has been thought to be due to the sharp calcium oxalate crystals (raphides) found in all taros. More recent data suggests that it is not the crystals but an allergen on the surface and grooves of these sharp crystals that causes the acridity. People also vary in their sensitivity to acridity. Boiling, steaming, or baking taro inactivates the substances on the crystals in most common taro varieties. Some wild taro are so acrid that they might require hours of cooking and some can still be inedible. Cooking helps increase antioxidant activity and allows for other nutritional benefits in preventing chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. [9]

Once cooked, all parts of kalo are edible. Kalo itself is a good source of potassium, manganese, and B-complex vitamins, with  higher quantities per serving than that of whole milk [8]. Kalo is also high in copper. Additionally, kalo contains 5.1g of dietary fiber per 100g serving when cooked and unsalted [12]. This is 12x greater than the dietary fiber found in white rice, 3x greater than in white potatoes, and nearly 2x greater than found in wheat flour [10-13]! Dietary fiber helps decrease constipation, reduces the risk of hemorrhoids, lowers cholesterol levels, and controls blood sugar levels [4].

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%) [3]. For comparison, the rates of these diseases for non-Hispanic Whites are ~7%, ~54%, and <6%, respectively. Returning to a traditional diet, such as including kalo, could help reverse these health disparities. Additionally dietary fiber also contributes to feelings of fullness and allows for individuals to feel full faster and consume less calories in the process [4]. 

Kalo also contains a high amount of beta-carotene at 39 micrograms per 100g serving when cooked without salt [8;10]. The body can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, which  provides benefits such as supporting the health of your heart, lungs, eyes, and other organs [5]. Additionally, vitamin A helps decrease the risk of some forms of cancer, age-related macular degeneration (vision loss in the elderly), and measles. 

In summary, kalo is culturally significant and provides us with food security that benefits us personally, our community, and our environment. Oxalate crystals are often mistaken for the acridity in taro, however, it is the surfaces and grooves within these crystals that cause the acridity. A way to prevent this itching and burning sensation is to cook kalo and this can be done by boiling, steaming, or baking. When steamed and pounded, kalo can be found in the form of poi and that is used to help with digestive disorders. Additionally, when cooked, kalo can provide a wealth of nutritional benefits and help decrease the risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are particularly at risk for these non-communicable diseases so going back to native roots can help create a healthier future. 

Explore Kalo Here: https://eatbreadfruit.com/blogs/recipes/tagged/kalo?page=1


1. Brown, A.C., Ibrahim, S.A., Song, D. (2016). In R.R. Watson & V.R. Preedy (Eds.).,Fruits, vegetables, and herbs: Bioactive foods in health promotion(pp. 331-342). Elsevier, Inc.

2. Kagawa-Viviani, A., Levin, P., Johnston, E., Ooka, J., Baker, J., Kantar, M., Lincoln, N.K.(2018). I ke ēwe ‘āina o ke kupuna: Hawaiian ancestral crops in perspective. Sustainability, 10(4607), 1-36. DOI:10.3390/su10124607

3. Kaholokula, J.K., Ing, C.T., Look, M.A., Delafield, R., Sinclair, K. (2018). Culturally responsive approaches to health promotion for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Annals of Human Biology, 45(3), 249-263. https://doi.org/10.1080%2F03014460.2018.14655934. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022, November 4). Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet. Mayo Clinic.https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art20043983#:~:text=Dietary%20fiber%20increases%20the%20weight,Helps%20maintain%20bowel%20health

5. National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Vitamin A [Fact Sheet]. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/

6. Paull, R.E., Tang, C., Gross, K., Uruu, G. (1999). The nature of the taro acridity factor. Postharvest Biology and Technology, 16(1999), 71-78. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0925-5214(98)00099-4

7. Paull, R.E., Zerpa-Catanho, D., Chen, N.J., Uruu, G., Wai, C.M.J., Kantar, M. (2022). Taro raphide-associated proteins: Allergens and crystal growth. Plant Direct, 6(e443), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1002/pld3.443

8. Rashmi, D.R., Raghu, N., Gopenath, T.S., Palanisamy, P., Bakthavatchalam, P., Karthikeyan, M., Gnanasekaran, A., Ranjith, M.S., Chandrashekrapa, G.K., Basalingappa, K.M. (2018). Taro (Colocasia esculenta): An overview. Journal of Medicinal Plants Studies, 6(4), 156-161.

9. Temesgen, M., Retta, N. (2015). Nutritional potential, health, and food security benefits of taro Colocasia esculenta (L.): A review. Food Science and Quality Management, 36(2015), 23-30. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318562639_Nutritional_potential_Health_and_Food_SecurityBenefits_of_Taro_Colocasia_esculenta_L_A_Review

10. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2019). Potatoes, baked, flesh, without salt. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170033/nutrients

11. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2019). Rice, white, long-grain, regular, enriched, cooked. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168878/nutrients

12. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2019). Taro, cooked, without salt. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168486/nutrients

13. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2018). Wheat flour, whole-grain, soft wheat. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168944/nutrients


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