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Are Yams and Sweet Potatoes the Same Thing?

yams, sweet potatoes

The yummy portion of your Thanksgiving dinner that happens to be orange ― is it made of yams or sweet potatoes?  Even if you think you used yams, they might be sweet potatoes after all.

Yams and sweet potatoes are in fact two different root vegetables. And unless you shop in a specialty store, it’s likely that you’ve only purchased sweet potatoes, even if they were labeled as yams.

(If you think potatoes are boring, consider the culinary extravaganza of the turducken. What are the birds that get stuffed inside the turkey to make one? Find out here.)

Yams are the tuberous roots of the genus Dioscorea. They are native to parts of Asia and Africa. Yams can grow to weigh over 100 pounds.

The word “yam” is derived, via Portuguese or Spanish, from a West African language called Wolof. The Wolof word nyam means “to sample” or “taste.”  Similar words in other African languages for yam mean “to eat” and “to chew.”

Like the yam, the sweet potato is grown for its edible root. But unlike the yam, it is not part of the Dioscoreaceae family. Sweet potatoes are native to South America, and they were the main source of nourishment for early Europeans in the Americas.

So, why do we get them confused?

In general, there are two kinds of sweet potatoes. The firm, white variety was cultivated first in the United States. Once the soft variety was developed for a commercial market, there arose a need to distinguish the two. Because of their resemblance to yams grown in Africa, African slaves in North America had already been referring to sweet potatoes as yams. So, the name stuck.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tries to help confused consumers by requiring that sweet potatoes labeled “yams” are also labeled sweet potatoes.

89 Comments

  1. Better That You -  December 5, 2013 - 4:27 pm

    Whoa…. didn’t know that… I have just been cheated from the yam experience… by the way, it the commenter whose name was Paco ever reads this, would your name happen to be Katy?

    Reply
  2. Shirley Kilgore -  November 29, 2013 - 6:05 pm

    I grew up in Texas where sweet potatoes are a favorite food.
    But I was always taught that sweet potatoes are always orange, usually have a non shiny skin, and can range in size from small to very long and large..

    Yams were big around, had slick skins and were always a reddish color inside and out. Some of them were extremely large.
    But the bottom line is whichever you choose, they are delicious!
    A cold baked sweet potato is always a good choice for a breakfast that will keep you going!

    Reply
  3. Sugar -  November 27, 2013 - 11:20 pm

    I don’t know?????

    Reply
  4. jiali -  November 27, 2013 - 9:29 pm

    no,sweet potatoes are like regular potatoes.

    Reply
  5. Thom H -  November 27, 2013 - 7:36 pm

    I yam what I am, but ain’t nothin’ like sweet taters done right!

    Reply
  6. Thom -  November 27, 2013 - 7:35 pm

    I yam what I yam, but ain’t nothin’ like sweet taters done right!

    Reply
  7. Joy -  November 27, 2013 - 7:33 pm

    Wow. I never even knew this. This is so cool!

    Reply
  8. alex -  November 27, 2013 - 11:21 am

    I still don’t get the difference?

    Reply
  9. Mr. CoolGuyBob -  November 27, 2013 - 9:00 am

    It’s just like twilight. Will we be team Yam? (Edward) Or will you be team sweet potato? (Jacob)

    Reply
  10. Paco -  November 27, 2013 - 8:54 am

    I like sweet potato fries! But were they yams? Have I been deceived? HAVE I BEEN EATING YAM FRIES?

    Reply
  11. Jerald -  November 27, 2013 - 8:52 am

    I used to like sweet potatoes. But were they really yams all along? So do I really like yams? I think yams are disgusting, but what if I eat them all the time! I don’t know what to think anymore.

    Reply
  12. sar -  November 26, 2013 - 11:59 pm

    this article was confusing. It says they are different in the meat of it then at the end it says they are the same.

    Reply
  13. Wabbajack -  November 26, 2013 - 10:09 am

    I never even really knew what a yam was. I always look for sweet potatoes, even though they’re not a common find in my country.

    Reply
  14. Maz -  November 26, 2013 - 3:32 am

    So do you have actual yams in the US? Y’know, the small, red skinned root?

    In New Zealand, we have our own native sweet potatoes called “kumara” which come in a couple of different varieties. I used them for a recipe I got from an American site for Sweet Potato Pie and it turned out well, so I assume they’re closely related to the American ones.

    Reply
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