What's the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams?

Source

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

Large yams
Large yams | Source

Yams

Yams, 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. They are well-adapted to the tropical climate of Caribbean countries.

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 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 | Source

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes 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 potatoes as "yams" because of their resemblance to the yams in Africa and the name stuck. So firm, white fleshed sweet potatoes were called "sweet potatoes" and soft, reddish sweet potatoes became known as "yams".

So which are they?

The USDA requires that all sweet potatoes that are labelled yams must also state somewhere on their label that they sweet potatoes but not all sellers are compliant. Hence the cans of candied yams that line the store shelves are actually the 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.

© 2014 Caren White

More by this Author


Comments 39 comments

Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 23 months ago

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?


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 23 months ago from The Beautiful South

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.


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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!


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 23 months ago from southern USA

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


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 23 months ago from Taos, NM

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.


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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.


shraddhachawla profile image

shraddhachawla 23 months ago

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


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 23 months ago from Houston, Texas

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.


IslandBites profile image

IslandBites 23 months ago from Puerto Rico

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.


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 23 months ago from USA

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!


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


ladyguitarpicker profile image

ladyguitarpicker 23 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

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


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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.


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 23 months ago from Pennsylvania

Thanks. I also wondered.


tobusiness profile image

tobusiness 23 months ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

Both delicious and very health. Great hub.


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 23 months ago from Hawaii

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.


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


MsDora profile image

MsDora 23 months ago from The Caribbean

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.


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


Mega Galatic profile image

Mega Galatic 23 months ago from NYC

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


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 23 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 22 months ago from East Coast, United States

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.


heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 22 months ago from Chicago Area

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!


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 22 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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.


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 22 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


Kiss andTales profile image

Kiss andTales 22 months ago

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?


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 22 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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 profile image

Kiss andTales 22 months ago

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


greatstuff profile image

greatstuff 22 months ago from Malaysia

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 profile image

Kiss andTales 22 months ago

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


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 22 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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


Susan Trump profile image

Susan Trump 20 months ago from San Diego, California

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


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 20 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ Author

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

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working