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What is the Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes

Updated on December 13, 2014
Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes | Source

The Sweet Potato

Sweet potatoes are a dicot (a plant with two embryonic seed leaves) from the Convolvulacea family. Though they do not tolerate frost and are sensitive to drought, fairing best in tropical and warm temperate climates with adequate rainfall, they are a relatively low maintenance crop. They have few natural enemies, meaning pesticides are rarely needed, and because their rapidly growing vines provide plenty of shade, little weeding is necessary.

Shaped somewhat like a baking potato, sweet potatoes have a smooth skin and tapered ends. The most recognizable sweet potato (at least in the US) is probably the orange-skinned variety. However, they can be found in a range of colors including yellow, red, brown, purple, and beige. The darker colors tend to be sweeter.

The Yam

Yams are a monocot (a plant with one embryonic seed leaf) from the Dioscoreaceae family. Grown most successfully in humid climates, yams are much more high maintenance than the sweet potato. Not only are they quite susceptible to a range of insect pests as well as fungal and viral diseases, but they require a considerable amount of manual labor to produce, as mechanized methods of harvesting have yet to be established.

Tubular in shape, with rough, thick skin, yams can actually grow up to about five to seven feet in length. They can be found in colors ranging from dark brown to light pink and are actually typically sweeter than the sweet potato.

Nutritional Comparison

Lower in calories and considerably higher in Vitamin A as well as beta-carotene, sweet potatoes are considered to pack more of a nutritional punch than yams. However, the tubular vegetable does win out when it comes to potassium and sodium content.

Sweet Potatoes versus Yams

Component (per 100 grams)
Sweet Potato
1.6 grams
1.5 grams
3 grams
4.1 grams
30 mg
17 mg
25 mg
21 mg
337 mg
816 mg
55 mg
9 mg
Vitamin C
2.4 mg
17.1 mg
Vitamin A
14187 IU
138 IU
8509 mcg
83 mcg

Fun Facts About Sweet Potatoes

  • They’re ranked among the world’s seven most important food crops
  • Though they originated in Latin America, China is currently the world’s largest producer.
  • Pizza restaurants in Korea use them as toppings.
  • Every year, Benton, Kentucky hosts the Tater Day Festival in honor of sweet potatoes.
  • In South America, sweet potato juice is combined with lime juice to make dyes for cloth – colors vary according to the juice proportions and can include everything from pink to black.
  • They’re known as the “protector of children” in Africa, as they are often the only food that stands between a child’s survival and starvation.
  • Most of the sweet potato crop in the US is canned.
  • They’ve been used in folk remedies to treat everything from asthma to night blindness to diarrhea.
  • North Carolina is the largest US producer of sweet potatoes and in 1995 designated it as their official state vegetable (Louisiana did the same in 2003).
  • Scientist George Washington Carver developed 118 different products from sweet potatoes including; glue for postal stamps, dehydrated food, and an alternative to corn syrup.
  • Sweet potatoes are not, in fact, related to the potato.

Fun Facts About Yams

  • They can grow up to 20 pounds in weight.
  • Nigeria is the world’s largest producer and exporter of yams.
  • Yam milk has been used topically to help heal ulcers, boils, and abscesses.
  • Every August, a Yam Festival is hosted in Ghana during which people offer yams to gods and ancestors as a way of giving thanks.
  • There are more than 600 varieties of yams.
  • Yams are closely related to lilies or grasses.


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    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      I didn't know this, thanks for clearing that out for me, now I know what to call them when I see them, voted up!

    • GiblinGirl profile image

      GiblinGirl 4 years ago from New Jersey

      Interesting info tattuwurn. Yam jam sounds tasty :)

    • profile image

      tattuwurn 4 years ago

      What I know about yam, at least here in the Philippines (where we call "ube"), is that it's purplish, although they have white varieties. Like Peachpurple said, yams make the hands itchy. Sort like a taro root, which is also itchy. Yams here are used as jams or spreads since they tend to be more starchy and bit sweet than sweet potatoes.

      Sweet potatoes are usually white or yellowish white (at least here, again). They're easier to cook and prepare.

      You mention that yam is a high maintenance plant compared to sweet potatoes, and I quite agree with you. In fact here in our country, sweet potato plants can be found semi-wild on vacant lots and near canals.

      I like both of them :)

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      thanks for the article. Yams make my hands itchy and they are harder to cook. Sweet potatoes are very sweet, easy to cook and delicious