They may both grow underground and appear similar on the surface, but what are the real differences between sweet potatoes and yams?
In this post, we will debunk myths, share similarities, and point out the differences between these fall favorites: Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams!
Yams or Sweet Potatoes?
Some folks see them as the exact same, and while they do have some interchangeable qualities, sweet potatoes and yams are actually quite distinct.
Many markets have misled us by labeling sweet potatoes as yams and hoping we didn’t catch on. Furthermore, recipe books tend to show the same deception.
Real yams are actually a different vegetable altogether. It was assumed nobody could tell the difference. No real harm done, but it’s time to uncover the truth.
We’ve showcased the versatility of the sweet potato in several dishes throughout the site, but where are the yams? Let’s break this down even further with the definitions of each vegetable.
Definition: Sweet Potato vs. Yam
First things first, the sweet potato and the yam are two distinct vegetables from two different continents, each with unique genetics and histories.
While these starchy vegetables have a few similarities, i.e., shape and membership in the tuber family, their overall look, textures, and tastes are worlds apart.
- Yams more closely resemble the yucca root
- Their skin is rough and dark, almost like tree-bark, with a slightly hairy texture
- Most often the flesh is either bright white, yellow, pink, or purple
- Starchier, drier, and milder in flavor
- When cooking true yams, they’ll need to be peeled and boiled to break down the woody fibers making them more pleasant to eat
- Found in many different colors such as purple, orange, yellow, and brown on the outside, and white, yellow, orange, and red on the inside
- There are two main types of sweet potatoes found here in the U.S. each with different characteristics:
- Firm sweet potatoes – Tan skin and pale, off-white flesh. It is said that firm sweet potatoes still remain firm and somewhat waxy, even after cooking. Most commonly labeled as sweet potatoes.
- Soft sweet potatoes – Copper skin and deep orange flesh, soft sweet potatoes are sweeter than firm sweet potatoes and have a much moister inner flesh. Typically labeled as yams.
Native to Central and South America, Columbus is credited with bringing sweet potatoes further north.
Potatoes were relatively easy to cultivate and maintain, and so the sweet potato became an easy staple crop to feed the fast-growing populations of the south and midwest.
The Library of Congress states that although historical recipes using sweet potatoes were found in Virginia around 1648, it wasn’t until after 1740 that the term “sweet potato” caught on to differentiate it from the classic Irish White Potatoes of the old world.
But how did soft sweet potatoes end up being labeled as yams?
The mixed-up names come from commercial farmers and shippers wanting to differentiate the more common firm sweet potatoes on the market from the softer, more sugary varieties they were introducing (in other words, it was a marketing campaign).
They referred to these soft sweet potatoes as yams.
But where exactly did the word yam come from? The word “yam” was derived from the Senegalese word “nyami,” which was used by African slaves in the U.S. to describe sweet potatoes.
How did these ingredients become so ingrained into our culture? Big crop yields, strong nutrient profiles, and, of course, the delicious recipes!
Although sweet potatoes were definitely not present at the first Thanksgiving, the sweet potato casserole, as we know it, has been a part of the American tradition for over a century now.
Smithsonian Magazine details how this mashed sweet potato “pudding” topped with marshmallows was introduced to the American dinner table by the confectionary company Angelus Marshmallow.
Sweet potatoes and yams are both healthier than the widely-used Irish White Potato. Our Sweet potato pumpkin soup is an excellent example of this healthy and hearty alternative that will still warm bellies on a chilly fall night.
Simple swaps like these can add convenience and variety to your recipe list while incorporating healthier options the whole family can enjoy.
Almost everyone loves the taste and nostalgic vibes of sweet potatoes. But did you know sweet potatoes themselves are considered a very low-fat food on their own?
While the authentic yam is not as commonly used in American dishes, it too is a low-fat food full of vitamins and minerals.
How do yams and sweet potatoes compare nutritionally?
Sweet potatoes are a low-glycemic food which means that they do not cause an instant spike in blood sugar.
It has been rated moderately on the glycemic index, valued at 61. To learn more about the GI value system, check out this article from the Mayo Clinic.
Here are some other key facts:
- A whole sweet potato has around 6 grams of sugar, compared to the yam which contains less than 1 gram.
- One cup of chopped sweet potato contains 114 calories.
- Sweet potatoes only have 27 grams of carbs per one-cup serving.
- Boiling a sweet potato for just 30 minutes will reduce the GI value to 46.
- Yams win on the GI index, rated at an impressive low of 51.
- A yam has only .8 grams of sugar per one cup.
- One cup of yams contains 177 calories.
- Yams have around 40 grams of carbohydrates per cup.
As you can see, sweet potatoes are just a little lower in calories and carbs than yams but pack more sugar in each bite.
How to Use
Sweet potatoes are a delicious and healthy dinner time alternative to the more carb-heavy, high-GI Yukon, or Idaho potatoes that are typically served.
This sweet potato and apple pecan pilaf is a great example. Instead of sticks of butter or scoops of sugar, this pilaf is made with wild rice, dried fruit, and apples. A delicious way to boast all the colors and flavors of fall!
Closer to the classic sweetened sweet potatoes we’re used to, fill your tummy with this deliciously tasty take on glazed yams: our easy herb and brown sugar roasted sweet potatoes. Fall recipes bring families together and these are great beginner recipes that anyone can help prepare.
If you can find them (I never can), try experimenting with real yams.
There are plenty of amazing Asian and African dishes that incorporate the yam and you can use them as a healthy substitute for starchy, Yukon, or russet potatoes.
Want to make a more traditional yam recipe? It can be somewhat confusing since a quick Google search for yams leads to a ton of recipes that actually use sweet potatoes instead.
However, there are plenty of online resources, like All Nigerian Recipes. The site has a plethora of dishes to choose from, and in-depth tutorials on how to break down and cook a yam properly. You’ll also learn which vegetables and proteins pair well with yams to make a complete meal.
Yam or no yam, expanding your knowledge beyond the traditional sweet potato casserole can be life-changing.
Maybe you are looking for a new and healthy fall favorite for those family holiday meals? We suggest our autumn chicken skillet. You could easily swap the chicken for turkey on the morning after Thanksgiving.
The yams vs. sweet potato debate has been a huge part of family food conversation over the last century. Now you can be the one to end the debate and set the record straight this fall!
Beyond the holiday season, it’s always worth trying new ingredients, and yams are the perfect place to start.
Try new sweet potato recipes and substitution, making healthier meals for the whole family while keeping the flavors fresh.
An easy switch is sweet potato fries. These are a delicious crowd-pleaser, and once your family gets a taste of these sweet and savory alternatives they’ll be begging for more!
Experimentation is the key to success in the kitchen. Next time you’re at the market, pick up a few yams and sweet potatoes, and see for yourself what magic you can make!
Try These Sweet Potato Recipes,
REMEMBER TO SUBSCRIBE TO THE FORKED SPOON NEWSLETTER FOR FREE AND RECEIVE WEEKLY RECIPE NOTIFICATIONS DELIVERED STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX!