Yams and Sweet Potatoes: Is there a difference?

by Emily from Frugal Living NW on November 14, 2013

Difference between yams and sweet potatoes

Yams and Sweet Potatoes: Is there a difference?

Grocery stores used to be so simple to me. We are out of food? I will get food! I could walk in with confidence, consult my list, fill my cart, and push my way to the check out stand without a single, solitary dilemma. Now I feel like I have to make a hundred different decisions. And that’s just to get through the produce section. Local? Organic? Conventional? Pre-washed? Spray-free?

The humble potato should be simple, right? Wrong. Oh, so wrong. The whole yam vs. sweet potato mix-up is both fascinating and frustrating to me. Mostly frustrating. Different stores and growers label them different ways. Different parts of the country (and therefore recipes) call them different things.

I was determined to get to the bottom of this. So I sat down to do some focused research (aka Googling around while eating a bowl of ice cream and watching Psych).

different types of yams and sweet potatoes

Here are four tubers, a colorful mixture labeled as yams and sweet potatoes, available at my friendly New Seasons grocery store. However these examples, along with most tubers labeled as “yams” in the United States are, in fact, sweet potatoes. So even those Jewel & Garnet Yams are actually sweet potatoes.

Wait… Let’s back the potato truck up.

In the mid-20th century when orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were introduced to the United States, they were marketed as “yams” to avoid confusion with the white-fleshed sweet potatoes Americans already knew and ate. However, both are from the same botanical family. The flesh of a sweet potato can be white, orange, or purple. The USDA requires that orange-colored sweet potatoes be labeled as “sweet potatoes” in addition to “yams” which is obviously super helpful. Or as my dad would say, “Clear as mud!”

different types of sweet potatoes

Jewel & Garnet Yams - These have brownish-orange skins and bright orange interiors. While labeled yams, they are actually sweet potatoes and are even more common than the standard white-fleshed sweet potato. These varieties are a low-calorie, nutrient-dense food, packed with vitamin-A (more than carrots!). Sweet potatoes also contain high amounts of calcium, fiber, iron, and vitamin-E.

Sweet Potatoes - Same botanical group, different color. They are also long with tapered ends but have a light tan skin and a yellow interior, similar in color to a Yukon gold potato. They are a bit drier, starchier, and less sweet than their orange relatives. Sweet potatoes grown in the United States come from Florida, California, North Carolina, and Louisiana. Sweet potatoes are on the Clean Fifteen list, but Costco currently has a great price on 10-pound bags of organic sweet potatoes for $7.99!

Japanese Sweet Potatoes – With a deep purple skin and a white interior, these potatoes are super sweet.

Yams - Most of us have probably never even eaten a real yam. I know I haven’t. While you could hunt one down in the US, they are more common in African or Caribbean markets and diets. There are dozens of different yam varieties, some growing up to 8 feet long and weighing over 200 pounds! They have a rough, bark-like skin and rounded ends; the flesh is more dry, bland, and starchy and less sweet than sweet potatoes.

So what’s the difference between yams and sweet potatoes? Everything and nothing.

Basically, when shopping in a US grocery store, if it looks like a sweet potato in size and shape, it probably is, even if it is labeled as a yam. These “yams” can be substituted for sweet potatoes in recipes because… well, they are sweet potatoes. True yams, on the other hand, are a different animal entirely. They may be found in ethnic or specialty grocery stores, but are more common in international markets.

Learn how to make Sweet Potato Puree and Sweet Potato Biscuits

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

jackie November 15, 2013 at 1:51 am

The darker the color the more health benefits. Dr Oz had a piece on his show November 14th. If you suffer from leg cramps eat 3-4 sweet potatoes a week. Potassium is the key. Plus they are loaded with Vitamin A.

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juliemsrd April 12, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Dr. Oz is a quack.

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Linda November 14, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Wow. I’ve always wondered what the difference was. Thank you for clearing that up!

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Aimee November 14, 2013 at 9:10 pm

I have to agree with Ruth here. I grew up eating “yams”, and discovered sweet potatoes as an adult, and I think they are very different. I am, however, opposite of Ruth and much prefer sweet potatoes to “yams”. BUT, I recently discover purple sweet potatoes at Safeway, and those are BY FAR the best in the category that I have had. I definitely recommend them!

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Stefanie November 14, 2013 at 6:59 pm

I grew up calling yams sweet potatoes and that is what I still do – it doesn’t bother me at all but it makes my partner cringe for some reason.

When my grandmother was alive she made what she called candied sweet potatoes by boiling yams, cooling them, cutting them up, dredging them in brown sugar, and baking until the sugar was melted and caramelized. So so so so good – I miss them (and her) a lot!

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Cecile Lowrey November 14, 2013 at 6:43 pm

I usually buy the redskin ones, whether they are called yams or sweet potatoes. I have eaten them microwaved, boiled & fried but my favorite way is baked in the oven until they are really soft then they are so sweet they don’t need butter or anything.

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ruth p. November 14, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Hmmm. I don’t like it. To me yams taste and have such a different texture than white sweet potatoes that they don’t seem like the same veggie at all.

My favorite way to eat yams is to roast them, and serve them with butter and lemon. Yum. It is a Martha Stewart gleaned idea and I have not eaten sweetened yams since.

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Howard November 14, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Very good article. I thought I had it down before with yams being orange and sweet taters being white. Oh well, they’re all good. It’s usually the orange guys that go on sale this time of year. Haven’t seen any great prices yet. As Popeye sang, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam, I’m Popeye the sailor man.”

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charolyn November 14, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Funny just yesterday I read a similar article in the Safeway nutritional produce pamphlet (really pick it up because it has coupons in it-but look at the articles also).
I will say your description was much clearer than that one-so thanks, now I feel that I am truly knowledgeable, and it is a food item I find delicious. Ever since I read about roasting vegetables on this site, these (as well as beets) are one of my favorites cooked this way also :-)

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charolyn November 14, 2013 at 3:15 pm

PS and better pictures-the one where they are sliced is great!

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Genevieve November 14, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Well, I had it all wrong. And here I thought I was so well informed…thanks for setting me straight!

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Lalia H November 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I love the Garnet and Jewel sweet potatoes baked and cut open like a baked potato and topped with a touch of butter, brown sugar and cinnamon! It looks like they are the nutrient powerhouse. Thanks for the description. I’ll have to look for the Japanese ones and try them out.

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Renee November 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm

We love the orange sweet potatoes/yams in our house! When I first went to buy them I bought “sweet potatoes” because I grew up eating yams in West Africa and knew that wasn’t what I wanted as they are quite dry and starchy. Turns out “sweet potatoes” are actually a lot closer to the yams I grew up with and what I really wanted was “yams!” Talk about confusing! Now I just look at the color and ignore the signage altogether :)

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Melody November 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm

This confused me for a hundred years until I just decided to stop looking for sweet potatoes and just buy “yams”. I used to come home from the store so frustrated that they were out of “sweet potatoes”. Definitely clear as mud!

And I am single-handedly buying out Costco’s stock of sweet potatoes. CRAZY price.

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