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What Is the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams?

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

Red sweet potatoes

Red sweet potatoes

Each autumn, I stand in the produce section of the grocery store puzzling over the sweet potatoes and yams. They look identical to me. Do they taste differently? Are they prepared differently? What is the difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

What Is the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams?

The USDA requires that all sweet potatoes that are labelled yams must also state somewhere on their label that they are sweet potatoes but not all sellers do so. Hence the cans of candied yams that line the store shelves are actually soft, reddish sweet potatoes. If you see a bin of "yams" in the produce section of your grocery store, they are really sweet potatoes. No wonder I was confused! In most US grocery stores, yams and sweet potatoes are the same thing.

True yams are not normally found in grocery stores here in the US. If you want to buy them, you must go to an international market. Although most yams are grown in Africa and Asia, the yams which are sold in the US are imported from the Caribbean so visit a Caribbean market or any store that specializes in Caribbean foods to find true yams.

Large yams

Large yams

What Are Yams?

Yams (Dioscorea alata), which are related to grasses and lilies, are native to the tropical areas of Africa and Asia. They were introduced to the New World by the Portuguese and Spanish who were introduced to them via their Asian and African colonies. Yams are well-adapted to the tropical climate of Caribbean countries which closely resembles the climate of their native lands.

There are more than 600 varieties of yams, 95% of which are grown in Africa. They are dryer and starchier than sweet potatoes. Yams are a staple food in the areas where they are grown because their dryness means that they will store well. This is important because those countries have a rainy season when food can be difficult to come by. Rainy seasons are common in tropical areas. Yams require a humid, tropical environment to grow.

It is the tubers,which grow underground, of the plants that are eaten. The tubers range in size from a small potato up to 5 pounds. They have a dark skin which looks like bark and can be very hard. The inner flesh can be white, red or purple.

Yams can be prepared different ways. They are usually boiled and mashed, then added to dishes or dried and ground into a powder which then is made into a porridge type dish. They can also be fried, roasted, baked, grilled, smoked and barbequed.

White sweet potatoes

White sweet potatoes

What Are Sweet Potatoes?

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are related to morning glories. They are native to Central and South America and were widely eaten by the indigenous cultures of those areas.

Sweet potatoes are also found on islands in the Pacific Ocean. No one is sure how they got there, whether it was the intrepid sailors who explored the Pacific Ocean landing in the New World and bringing back sweet potatoes to their home islands or if it was adventurous sailors from the New World who brought them to the Pacific islands.

Sweet potatoes come in two varieties and this where the confusion with yams comes in. The sweet potatoes that were commonly grown by the first Europeans to colonize the New World looked very much like potatoes. They have a thin yellow skin and the interior flesh is firm and white. The softer, reddish sweet potatoes were introduced commercially later. The enslaved Africans referred to the soft sweet reddish potatoes as "yams" because of their resemblance to the yams in their native Africa and the name stuck.

The USDA hopped on board and labelled the soft, reddish sweet potatoes as "yams" to distinguish them from the firm white sweet potatoes. So firm, white fleshed sweet potatoes were called "sweet potatoes" and soft, reddish sweet potatoes became known as "yams".

So now you (and I) know the difference between sweet potatoes and yams. Remember, when you are cooking African or Asian dishes, if the recipe calls for yams, it is not referring to what Americans call yams which are really sweet potatoes.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is there any difference in the eyes of a sweet potato vs a yam?

Answer: No, there is no difference. The "eyes" of a tuber are the places from which the plant will grow. That's why when you plant them, you have to make sure that the pieces that you are planting have eyes. If it doesn't have any eyes, no plants will grow.

© 2014 Caren White

Comments

Caren White (author) on February 01, 2015:

Susan, I'm not a big fan of marshmallows either. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Susan Trump from San Diego, California on February 01, 2015:

good info...keeping marshmallows off both works for me!

Caren White (author) on November 22, 2014:

Greatstuff, thank you for the info. They sound delicious. And thank you for reading and commenting.

Kiss andTales on November 22, 2014:

Now that sound good enough for me to try that very soon! Thanks greatstuff!

Mazlan from Malaysia on November 22, 2014:

Yes you are right. Sweet potato is sweeter and yam has a flat, but starchy taste. I like them both. We either fry them just like banana fritters or bake or cook them with coconut milk & brown sugar as desert.

Kiss andTales on November 22, 2014:

Thank you ! I hope we can taste a real one some day! Thanks for your informative Hub oldroses !

Caren White (author) on November 22, 2014:

Kiss and Tales, truthfully I've never tasted a yam but my impression is that sweet potatoes are sweeter. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Kiss andTales on November 22, 2014:

Thank you is there a difference in the taste, because I problerly never have tasted a yam when all the time it was just a sweet potatoe ?

Which is sweeter?

Caren White (author) on November 22, 2014:

Heidi, glad you enjoyed it. I hope you find it helpful as you plan your holiday menu. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Caren White (author) on November 22, 2014:

Dolores, just remember whatever the grocery store is calling it, it's a sweet potato. Even recipes that call for "yams" actually mean sweet potatoes. Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 22, 2014:

Knew there was a difference, but didn't know what that difference really was. Very interesting and informative... especially as these are often found on holiday menus. Voted up and interesting!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on November 22, 2014:

Thanks for clearing that one up. I was just wondering the difference last week. But I guess labeling in the grocery stores will just have me confused again.

Caren White (author) on November 09, 2014:

Mega, that seems to be true for a lot of people. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Melanie Sumpter from NYC on November 08, 2014:

Wow, I never paid attention to that. The names were always used interchangeably in my house. Thanks for this hub.

Caren White (author) on November 03, 2014:

So happy to make your acquaintance, MsDora. Glad to hear that yams are not mislabeled in the Caribbean. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 03, 2014:

First your Hug! Happy to meet you. Here in the Caribbean, the difference between our yams and sweet potatoes is clear. Thanks for straightening out the US confusion over these two produce items. Voted Up and Interesting.

Caren White (author) on November 02, 2014:

Natashalh, how interesting! I confess that I've never eaten a real yam. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Natasha from Hawaii on November 02, 2014:

Very interesting! I hate yams and thought for years that I hated sweet potatoes, too, because they seemed the same. I currently live in Hawaii and there are lots of different sweet potato options (as well as actual yams) and I'm happily enjoying actual sweet potatoes now! As you noted in your comment above, the sweetness can be overwhelming, but I've figured out which varieties are less sweet.

Caren White (author) on November 01, 2014:

Tobusiness, I've always had a problem with their sweetness but I'm trying to like them. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Caren White (author) on November 01, 2014:

Me too, Maren! Thank you for reading and commenting.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on November 01, 2014:

Both delicious and very health. Great hub.

Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on November 01, 2014:

Thanks. I also wondered.

Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:

Stella, I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who wondered about this! Thank you for reading and commenting.

Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:

Flourish, I'm surprised that there isn't more regional variation in names but I think it became standardized thanks to the USDA. Thenk you for reading and commenting.

Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:

IslandBites, you are fortunate to have both readily available to you. Thank you for reading and commenting.

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on October 31, 2014:

Hi, interesting hub and I always wonder the difference between the two potatoes. I never knew. Stella

Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:

Peggy, I appreciate the pin. I get good traffic from Pinterest! And thank you for sharing.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 31, 2014:

I never knew this. I had always been told it incorrectly that it was two names for the same thing depending on what part of the country you come from, much like people call soda "pop," or "Coke" or "soft drink" depending on where they are from. Interesting!

IslandBites from Puerto Rico on October 31, 2014:

Nice hub. Vote up!

We don't have that problem in Puerto Rico. Both vegetable are very popular here. Yam is called ñame. Sweet potato is called batata. The orange/reddish sweet potato is batata mameya.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 31, 2014:

Thanks for clarifying the differences between sweet potatoes and yams. Going to pin this to my vegetables board and give it a share on HP.

Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:

Shradhachawla, I've discovered that it's a common mistake. Thank you for reading and commenting.

shraddhachawla on October 31, 2014:

Even I thought sweet potatoes and yams were different varieties of the same tuber. Enjoyed reading your Hub.

Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:

Suzette, you are so right! I was inspired to write this hub because I began planning my Thanksgiving menu and wanted to include sweet potatoes which reminded me that I didn't know the difference between them and yams. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 31, 2014:

Fascinating article as I have always wondered about the difference between yams and sweet potatoes. This is the answer! LOL! Thanks so much for writing this. I love sweet potatoes baked with cinnamon on them. So delicious. Thanks so much for writing this and educating us on the difference between yams and sweet potatoes. This is certainly relevant for this time of the year with Thanksgiving nearly upon us.

Caren White (author) on October 31, 2014:

Faith, Isn't it great that something so sweet is actually good for you? Thanks so much for the vote, the tweet and the pin.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on October 30, 2014:

I always thought that yams were sweet potatoes that were sweetened with brown sugar, etc. LOL, now I know the true difference. I love sweet potatoes and they are so very good for you. We eat at least a baked sweet potato at least once or twice a week.

Up +++ tweeting and pinning

Caren White (author) on October 30, 2014:

Carb Diva, yams can be prepared similar to potatoes which are also dense and starchy. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Jackie, the purple ones probably have lots of beta carotene like carrots. I've heard of purple sweet potatoes and seen pictures of them, but I've never seen them grown or sold in markets. Thank you for the vote and for sharing!

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on October 30, 2014:

Very interesting. I love sweet potatoes and know they have some great benefits. I read the purple one are the very best for you but I have never been able to find those.

Voted up and sharing.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on October 30, 2014:

Good Hub. I've always wondered if they were the same thing or not. What about preparation--can they be cooked exactly the same, or does the starchiness of yams require a different cooking method?

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