Are Yams Sweet Potatoes?

If you have visited your local grocery store you might have stumbled upon sweet potatoes and nearly identical produce named yams, but what’s the difference? Are yams sweet potatoes?

Yams are not sweet potatoes. Yams and sweet potatoes are completely different types of vegetables. The yams that are regularly sold in US grocery stores are, for the most part, just a case of mislabeled sweet potatoes.

Hearing that the yams you might have been consuming all this time are just a case of mistaken identity might just leave you with the question, where did this confusion start?

Yams VS Sweet Potatoes

This began when orange flesh sweet potatoes were introduced into the US, and producers needed a way to differentiate the new produce from the white flesh sweet potatoes everyone was used to seeing. Since African slaves had already referred to the soft sweet potatoes as yams, likely confusing them for real yams grown mainly in Africa, the word yam was chosen by Southern farmers as a term for the new soft flesh sweet potatoes.

Real yams are actually the edible roots of the Dioscorea genus, as opposed to sweet potatoes that are a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the Convolvulaceae family. Yams are mostly grown in Africa and have distinct features that separate them from sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes see most of its produce grown in the US and China.

Yams tend to be starchy, dry, and not all that sweet, not to mention they largely vary in size. It is due to this drier nature that this food can be stored in humid environments without the risk of spoiling, and that has made this a staple food in tropical environments.

Sweet potatoes on the other hand have a high concentration of sugar and is more commonly related to eggplants than yams. This vegetable is native to America, at least back to prehistoric times.

Yams have a neutral earthy flavor that is malleable enough to be used for a variety of recipes. Yams do have to be cooked since they are toxic when eaten raw, and there are multiple methods to cook yams, such as fried, roasted, or boiled.

You might be wondering then where you can actually buy genuine yams since you are unlikely to find yams in your local grocery store, and the truth is that if you are looking to get some of these stem tubers you will have to visit a specialty store. They will usually be pre-cut into chunks and wrapped in plastic, unlike sweet potatoes that come unprocessed.

What Are Sweet Potatoes?

As previously mentioned, sweet potatoes, unlike normal potatoes, are not tubers but rather root vegetables that are a part of the Convolvulaceae family. This vegetable, characterized by its sweet flavor, is easily grown in tropical climates and is packed with nutrients as well as a high concentration of sugar.

The main reason why sweet potatoes and yams are confused can be attributed to the various types of sweet potatoes that caused people to want to differentiate between the two of them. It should be noted that sweet potatoes have three major types, reddish-brown skin, pale golden skin, and purple skin.

  • Orange Sweet Potato: The main sweet potato type that is confused with yams is the reddish-brown skin sweet potato. This variety is also called the soft sweet potato and is often seen with orange flesh.
  • White Sweet Potato: White sweet potatoes have golden pale skin that covers white flesh. This is one of the more popular variants in the US, and unlike the orange sweet potatoes, remains firm even after cooking.
  • Japanese Sweet Potato: These potatoes are newer in the US compared to the last two entries, but they are quite common in contrast to their novelty. They have dark purple skin and pale flesh, and like the orange sweet potatoes are usually labeled as a Japanese yam.

No matter what the label says in your local grocery store, you cannot buy real yams there since they are not typically sold in the US in such stores. Despite people thinking that they are eating yams on Thanksgiving, these are also not yams but just another variant of common sweet potatoes.

You’ve learned yams can be a common term to describe the soft variety of sweet potatoes, and you can go confident that you are well versed in the differences between the two vegetables.

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