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 The Crown).
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!”
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.
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.
Not at all confusing, right?
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Well this must be Mandela effect because I remember orange are the Yam and the white ones are Sweet potato.. Please correct me .Lol
ThanhHuong Vo says
You are correct about the African yam. I love this yam. We smash it raw, then cook like porridge with smashed shrimp. It’s delicious.
In my country, beside regular sweet potatoes that we know of, there are sweet potato that inside is white (raw or cooked), then other type is white with a ring of purple color in the middle.
Japanese sweet potatoes have many different kinds. I love Murasaki the most.
Thanks for your informative research.
Wow. Very informative. I’ve always thought that the orange flesh potatoes were yams and lighter flesh ones were sweet potatoes. Now I realize that I’ve never actually had yams before.
Our grocery stores in NC call i orange tubers sweet potatoes, and I have never seen a white sweet potato that isn’t oriental. So interesting. I always thought yams were the darker orange ones as presented on the outer skin!
Sabrina Sojourner says
Thank you for this piece. There’s another important difference between yams and sweet potatoes. I’m allergic to sweet potatoes because they have an enzyme that is similar to barley. If I eat too much or too often, I get a very bad tummy ache. However, I can eat yams as long as they are cooked.
Mostly, I now know why most produce workers consider them the same thing. Additionally, I know that the ‘Japanese yam’ I was given to try is most likely a sweet potato.
FYI, important fact: sweet potatoes are high FODMAP and yams are low. If you’re really unlucky like me, you not only have IBS, but are unable to digest any Nightshades, the family which potatoes beling to, which leaves Real Yams as my ONLY potato-like substance that is safe. Too bad Its SO HARD to actually find them!!! Food should be labelled for what it ACTUALLY is, not what some fool decides! I’m tired of paying the price in PAIN! thank you for your time! .. Ps: Pumpkin vs Squash = SAME DEAL!!! Tell it like it is!!! Don’t Lie to me! I HATE the USDA, they’re KILLING ME! …
Bob Cain says
The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the bindweed or morning glory family, Convolvulaceae. Its large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous roots are a root vegetable. The young leaves and shoots are sometimes eaten as greens. The sweet potato is only distantly related to the potato (Solanum tuberosum) and does not belong to the nightshade family, Solanaceae, but both families belong to the same taxonomic order, the Solanales.
Wow. I’ve always wondered what the difference was. Thank you for clearing that up!
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!
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!
I am from the South, and yes they are sweet potatoes! That’s perfectly acceptable. Yams is acceptable too, but it’s just a marketing term.
My husband is from the Caribbean, and we went to his home island I overheard him incredulously telling his mother, “You know they call the orange ones “sweet potatoes” in Florida?! Those are obviously yams.” The only sweet potatoes to them are the white-fleshed ones.
I love him, but he can be very arrogantly cocksure in things like this. I wanted to be like, “Uhhhh, they actually ARE sweet potatoes in the US. Y’all yams are completely different.”
Also, my mom does the same thing with the candied sweet potatoes. Only the dish, oddly enough, is called candied yams instead. She added butter, allspice and clove too.
Cecile Lowrey says
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.
ruth p. says
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.
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.”
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 🙂
PS and better pictures-the one where they are sliced is great!
Well, I had it all wrong. And here I thought I was so well informed…thanks for setting me straight!
Lalia H says
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.
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 🙂
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.