What’s the big difference between sweet potatoes and yams?

Published 4:23 pm Tuesday, September 1, 2015

With a small taste of fall in the air on these cool refreshing mornings, it puts one in mind of some spicy comfort foods such as, Sweet potatoes, and pumpkins.

Have you heard someone, maybe your Grandmother state that she was going to cook some sweet potato yams? Well there is no such thing! Someone said, “Now wait a minute Jean, I helped my Daddy bank sweet potatoes for the winter many times, and I helped get potato draws in the spring to plant for the summer and fall crop.” I am sure you did just that, but it wasn’t a Yam even if the canned variety of sweet potatoes has been labeled as such.

According to information by “Everyday Mysteries,” although sweet potatoes and yams are angiosperm, (flowering plants), they are not related botanically. Sweet potatoes that we enjoy today such as the Georgia Jet a customer favorite, had its beginning as an Asian crop in spite of its new world origin. The Yam had it beginning in Africa.

Email newsletter signup

In 1987, nationwide China and Vietnam were the top two producers of sweet potatoes.

Today China still remains at the top with production at 75,800,197 metric tonnes, and Vietnam number 5 with 1,437,600 metric tonnes. Coming in second through four are: Uganda (2), Nigeria (3), Indonesia (4).

In the United States, the sweet potato is a native crop in North Carolina. American Indians were growing sweet potatoes when Columbus discovered American in 1492. They have been around since prehistoric times, and are of the morning glory family, a topical plant, that is why some believe they grow so well in the Southern states. Some say the dinosaurs might have eaten these delicious vegetables. The sweet potato is the official vegetable of North Carolina.

While sweet potatoes are of the morning gory family, yams are closely related to lilies and grasses. Native to Africa and Asia, Yams vary in size from a small potato to a record potato type of 130 pounds (as of 1999.) There are over 600 varieties of yams and 95% of these crops are grown in Africa.

Compared to sweet potatoes the yams are starchier and drier. They have higher sugar content than sweet potatoes and have a bark like skin.

The word yam comes from an African word meaning “to eat.” Yams keep well in storage for long periods of time, but are poisonous to eat raw, while sweet potatoes aren’t.
However, by cooking the yam they are safe to eat. They are typically peeled, boiled, pounded, and mashed or dried and ground into a powder that can be cooked into porridge.

The pounding removes any toxins too. Yams can be found in international markets, such as those that specialize in Caribbean food.

Why the confusion? In the United States, firm varieties of sweet potatoes were produced before soft varieties, and there were two main varieties one has a golden skin with cream light colored flesh and a sweet crumbly texture, and there is a copper skin with an orange flesh and is sweet and soft, this variety is usually labeled as yams in the supermarket.

Americans have been calling the orange-fleshed variety of sweet potatoes, “yams” since colonial times when Africans saw familiarities in them to the variety of yam they had seen in Africa. The USDA decided to label them as “yams” to differentiate the two varieties of sweet potatoes. Both varieties of sweet potatoes including those labeled “yams” can be widely found in supermarkets today.

So this Thanksgiving as you reach for what Grandma called the candied yams, you will know the difference. This is sweet potatoes not yams, even if the can they were preserved in and the sign by the ones in the produce isle tells you they are yams.

Makes one wonder what else has been wrongfully labeled just to sell it to us.