Yams vs. Sweet Potatoes - Demystifying the Confusion

Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

Nov 8
6 min read
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Chelsea Hafer Written By Chelsea Hafer

If you've ever strolled down the produce aisle or perused the canned goods section at your local grocery store, you might have found yourself pondering the difference between yams and sweet potatoes. Are they the same? Why are they often labeled interchangeably? To clear up the confusion, let's explore the distinctions between yams and sweet potatoes and shed light on why the names can be a bit perplexing.

Are Yams and Sweet Potatoes the Same?

No, yams and sweet potatoes are not the same. They belong to distinct botanical families and have differing characteristics:


Yams: Yams are cylindrical root tubers with rough, dark brown skin that often resembles tree bark. The flesh of yams is dry and starchy, akin to that of regular white potatoes. They are native to tropical regions of Africa and Asia and can grow to enormous sizes.

Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, have smooth reddish or orange skin and soft, sweet-tasting flesh. These root tubers are originally from Central and South America and come in various colors, including orange, purple, and white.

sweet potato

Why the Mix-Up Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?

You won't encounter true yams in American grocery stores. The confusion between yams and sweet potatoes can be traced back to the early 20th century. Sweet potato growers in the southern United States adopted the African word "yam" to market their orange-fleshed potatoes, differentiating them from traditional white potatoes. The nickname "yam" caught on, and many producers continue to use it today. However, since these yams are technically sweet potatoes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates that the label "yam" be accompanied by an additional label stating "sweet potato."

How to Differentiate Yams and Sweet Potatoes: A Simple Guide

To distinguish between yams and sweet potatoes when shopping, look for these key characteristics:

Sweet Potatoes - The most common varieties in the United States have smooth orange or reddish skin, orange flesh, and a sweet flavor. However some sweet potato varieties have a white flesh and very sweet flavor.

Yams - Yams have rough, brown skin reminiscent of tree bark, white flesh, and a more neutral flavor.

If you're still uncertain, you can use a simple trick to tell them apart. Check the skin for "eyes" or buds. Yams develop eyes, similar to regular potatoes, while sweet potatoes have fine roots on their skin, similar to beets or carrots. This easy visual cue can help you distinguish the two.

What is a yam?

True yams are edible stem tubers originating from tropical regions of Africa and Asia. They have dry, starchy flesh and can be stored in humid environments without spoiling, making them a staple food in tropical climates where they are grown. Yams come in various varieties, including Chinese yam, yellow yams, and ube, but the most commonly cultivated type has pale white flesh.

yam peeled

Are yams sweet potatoes?

Yams are not a type of potato. While both are stem tubers that grow underground, they belong to different botanical families. Potatoes belong to the nightshade family, along with peppers and tomatoes, while yams are part of a family of flowering vines, which is a surprising botanical group that also includes grasses and lilies.

What do yams taste like?

Compared to sweet potatoes, yams have a more earthy and neutral taste. They can be mildly sweet but often take on the flavors of the seasonings used in a dish. It's important to note that yams must be cooked before eating, as they are toxic when consumed raw. Even their leaves and stems are poisonous and must be removed before consumption.

Yams are highly versatile and can be prepared in various ways, including frying, roasting, and boiling. In West Africa, they are boiled and then mashed or pounded into a paste used in soups. Raw yam slices are dried in the sun and then ground into powder, which is added to boiling water to create a thick, starchy paste used in a side dish called amala, often served with soups.

Where To Find Yams

To purchase true yams in North America, you'll need to visit specialty stores, such as Caribbean or African food markets. These yams are often cut into chunks or slices and wrapped in plastic. You can also find yams online, but it's essential to ensure that they are genuine African yams and not sweet potatoes.

What are sweet potatoes?

Sweet potatoes are edible root tubers that originated in South and Central America. They are widely available in North American grocery stores and can be found fresh or canned year-round, with their peak season occurring from late October through December.

More closely related to carrots than to potatoes, sweet potatoes have thin skin and long, tapered ends. The most common variety features orange flesh and smooth reddish-brown skin, but there are various other sweet potato types, including white sweet potatoes and Japanese sweet potatoes.

Whad do sweet potatoes taste like?

Sweet potatoes have a naturally sweet flavor that intensifies during cooking. Roasting or baking sweet potatoes leads to the caramelization of their natural sugars, creating an even sweeter taste. To enhance their unique flavor, sweet potato dishes are often seasoned with brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, or even marshmallows. A sprinkle of pumpkin pie spice over a baked sweet potato can add a delightful, fall-inspired twist.

Types of Sweet Potatoes

orange flesh sweet potato

Orange Sweet Potatoes: Commonly labeled as yams, these sweet potatoes feature reddish-brown skin and bright orange flesh. Popular varieties include the Jewel Yam and Garnet Yam.

white flesh sweet potato

White Sweet Potatoes: Also known as firm sweet potatoes, these have light, golden skin and pale flesh. Unlike soft sweet potatoes, they remain firm and waxy after cooking, with the Hannah Sweet Potato being a well-liked variety.

Japanese Sweet Potato

Japanese Sweet Potatoes: Japanese sweet potatoes are increasingly available in U.S. grocery stores. They have deep purple or garnet-colored skin with white flesh that turns buttery yellow when cooked. These sweet potatoes are sometimes labeled as "Japanese yams."

Now that you're well-informed about the differences between yams and sweet potatoes, you can confidently navigate the produce section and correctly name your dishes. True yams are a rarity in most grocery stores, so you're likely to encounter sweet potatoes labeled as yams. Armed with this knowledge, you can make informed choices when selecting ingredients and avoid any confusion between these two distinct vegetables.

Chelsea Hafer, True Leaf Market Writer

Chelsea is a passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture and loves getting her hands dirty and watching things grow! She graduated from Georgetown University in 2022 with a degree in Environmental Justice and now resides in Park City, Utah, where she works as a ski instructor. Her love for nature extends to gardening and hiking, and she has gained valuable insights from working on farms in Italy, Hawaii, and Mexico, learning various sustainable agriculture techniques like permaculture and Korean Natural Farming.

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