Yams vs Sweet Potatoes: Is There a Difference?

Sweet potatoes are one of those things you see on lists of healthy foods that you should eat more often and you think to yourself, “Oh yeah I should eat more sweet potatoes.” But you never do until Thanksgiving rolls around and then you’re like, “Oh yeah, sweet potatoes are delicious! I’m definitely going to eat more of these!” But then you realize what you are actually eating is candied yams. Yams vs sweet potatoes: Are they different? Are yams and sweet potatoes the same? Let’s get to the bottom of the sweet potato vs yam controversy!

Are yams and sweet potatoes the same?

The short answer is: No. Yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing. Yams are not sweet potatoes. Yams and sweet potatoes are two entirely different foods. But in the U.S. some sweet potatoes are mislabeled as yams, which is where the confusion comes from. In fact, in major U.S. grocery stores, you are most likely to only encounter sweet potatoes, even though they may be labeled as yams. True yams may be sold at specialty Asian, African, and Caribbean markets. 

What’s the difference between a yam and a sweet potato?

Okay, we know they are not the same thing. So what’s the difference between sweet potatoes and yams? Sweet potatoes are root tubers, originally from South and Central America, and now sold across North America. Sweet potatoes have thin skin, tapered ends, and come in a variety of colors like orange with reddish-brown skin, or white with golden skin. Sweet potatoes taste sweet and are usually roasted or baked to bring out that sweetness. Yams, on the other hand,  are stem tubers originating from the tropical regions of Africa and Asia. Yams belong to a plant family of flowering vines. There are several varieties of yams, like the popular purple-hued ube, but the most common has pale, white flesh with a dark, bark-like skin. Yams have a more neutral and earthy taste. They can be fried, roasted, or boiled, and are a common ingredient in soup in West Africa.

Yams vs sweet potatoes: How did it start?

So how did this sweet potatoes vs yams fridge match begin? Where does the confusion come from? European slave traders packed their ships with West African yams during the horrific Middle Passage. When the enslaved people reached North America, the closest food to yams were sweet potatoes and the name transferred. At the time, the most prominent type of sweet potato in the United States was the pale variety. In the early 1900s, growers in Louisiana began to market their orange sweet potatoes as yams in order to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and the confusion remains until this day. 

Make no mistake, those bright orange bad boys used to make candied yams during the holidays are actually sweet potatoes. Tell everyone at the dinner table. They’ll be so interested and impressed.

About the Author

Will Morgan

Will Morgan, a freelance contributor to Sporked, is an L.A. based writer, actor, and sketch comedy guy. Originally from Houston, TX, he strongly believes in the superiority of breakfast tacos to breakfast burritos. Will traveled the world as one of those people that did yoyo shows at elementary school assemblies, always making a point to find local and regional foods to explore in whatever place he was, even in rinky-dink towns like Tilsonberg, ON. Will spends his birthdays at Benihana’s. Let him know if can make it.

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