Yams and Sweet Potatoes: Same Thing or Different Foods?

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Since Thanksgiving season is right around the corner, we know what time it is! Yam time! Or sweet potato time! But we also need some knowledge for that. Here are the differences between yams and sweet potatoes. What you find out might be completely surprising!

Hands up if you’ve ever used the word ‘yam’ to talk about something made with sweet potatoes. But… did you know that they’re entirely different things? It’s quite possible that all of the ‘yam’ dishes you’ve ever had were actually sweet potato dishes and you probably have never even had an actual yam.

Is your mind blown? If your answer is yes, let’s find out more about yams and sweet potatoes. Because information is power, and we love to give some power to everybody!

Yams and Sweet Potatoes: Same Thing or Different Foods?
Some variety of yams can grow up to be five feet long.

Similarities between yams and sweet potatoes

No doubt about it, some yams and some sweet potatoes look quite similar. They are both tubers or edible roots and they look quite similar in many ways, like the shape, the size, and the texture of the root – but it all depends on what variety we’re talking about.

But that is about it because sweet potato and yams are actually two different veggies. But their names are used interchangeably by markets and sometimes producers and shippers.

This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: ‘It’s a sham with yams. A yam sham’ and I have to say, it’s very appropriate for the situation.

Yams and sweet potatoes – differences

According to The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, a true yam is a starchy edible root of the Dioscorea genus. It’s usually imported to America from the Caribbean. And it has a rough and scaly texture. As opposed to sweet potatoes, yams are pretty low in beta-carotene.

Well, there are plenty of varieties of sweet potatoes, with different colored flesh: from white to orange and even purple. Some have orange skins, while some have red skin over orange flesh. The orange-fleshed one got to the United States a few decades ago, a while after the white fleshed one people were used to by then. Producers and shippers chose a new name for the sweet potato so that people don’t confuse the two varieties (white and orange). Red-skinned sweet potatoes ended up being called ‘yam’, from the English form of the African word ‘nyami’.

So why is it that this distinction is not emphasized in supermarkets? Probably because everybody is used to it by now. And also because of label regulations: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that labels with the word ‘yam’ on them be accompanied by ‘sweet potato’ as well.

Yams and Sweet Potatoes: Same Thing or Different Foods?
Sweet potatoes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

The story of yams

Most yams come from Africa, but there are some crops coming from Asia, as well. It’s strange, but yams are a distant relative of lilies. They have varying sizes: from a regular potato size to five feet long! They’re cylindrical in shape and can have black or brown skin, tough like bark, but also white, purple or red flesh.

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