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Yams are NOT Sweet Potatoes!

Written By: Jenn - Jun• 14•09

This has annoyed me for years. Really, it has! When I saw recently in a Top (hint hint) US supermarket that they had yams and sweet potatoes – but that they were both marked as the other – I just about had a bird.

[Edit March 2011: I’m getting tons of Google traffic for this post, as well as a lot of people showing up without a referring website. I’m extremely interested in knowing where you came from – would you mind leaving me a comment to let me know? Thanks! –Jenn]

The time has come, folks, to set this record straight. Listen up!

The yam is a tuber and a member of the lily family, while the sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family (of all things). Yes, they have scientific names, which Google will happily provide for you if you care enough to search for it.

Sweet Potatoes originated in Central and South America, and come in a variety of skin colours ranging from very light to red, to even purple. The flesh too, can range from white to orange, with the darker colours being sweeter. They are an excellent and yummy source of beta carotene. I adore Sweet Potatoes.

Yams, which originated in Africa and are not commercially grown in the US or Canada, have dark, rough, often shaggy skin, where sweet potatoes have thin skin, and the flesh is generally very light coloured and starchy. Yam tubers can grow several feet in length, whereas sweet potatoes generally stay in the range of a true potato in size, although more elongated in shape.

The difference between Sweet Potatoes and Yams

The difference between Sweet Potatoes and Yams

Nigeria is the largest producer and exporter of Yams (and internet fraud, but I don’t think it’s related).

So why, then, do so many Americans think that sweet potatoes are actually yams?

Interestingly enough, it comes from the dark days of slavery in the United States. African natives who were captured and brought to the states to become slaves thought the sweet potatoes were so like the tubers found in their homeland that they called them nyami (which apparently just means “to eat”), and as these things are wont to do, the word was eventually shortened to “yam”. I don’t present this as absolute fact, mind you – but I have read it so many times that I believe it’s surely close to the truth, if not the spot-on truth.

There is more to this twisted tuber temerity though!

Can you believe the USDA, in their infinite wisdom, actually insists that the label “yam” always be accompanied with the words “sweet potato” when referring to a sweet potato? Have you ever heard of anything so absurd? Surely, in this day and age, this authority on what you put in your mouth would have gotten word that they’ve been wrong all this time and changed their tune. Of course, that would require admitting that they were wrong, and we all know that ain’t gonna happen.

No wonder people are confused. Well, except me. And you – because now you know the truth! Go forth and spread the truth of the sweet potato!

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  1. ShaMoo says:

    Ah, so THIS is what happens when it’s a slow blogging day…. I see. :)

  2. Jenn says:

    You can’t be surprised…?! You know as well as anyone how anal-retentive I can be about things like this!

  3. Doodle Cakes says:

    Hmmm.. I spent days checking your blog.. Looking forward to reading something witty and clever… And ALL you give me is the difference between yams and sweet potatoes????? ;-p

  4. ShaMoo says:

    LOL, Doodle!!! Yep, time to step it up a notch, Miss. Blogger-pants.

  5. Jenn says:

    A girl has to have an off day or two once in a while. We DID have a concert to prepare for, fishy!

  6. U & I says:

    Thank you Jenn I appreciate your slow day and your wisdom on the difference between yams and sweet potatoes. My husband and I were reading the GI list that yams were less GI than sweet potatoes….we were like WHAT? Now we know….thanks again and Shamoo and Doodle Cakes are just jealous because you more infinite wisdom….U & I

  7. Melody says:

    Yayyy.. I was just complaining about this very thing.. thank you.. now I have something to back me up.. lol.

  8. Stori says:

    Thank you for clearing this up. I was so disappointed to learn we bought sweet potatoes and not yams. Dang it. Yet another government conspiracy…

  9. Sarah says:

    Hi there. I saw your note about increased traffic on this page for March 2011. I did a Google Image search about the difference between sweet potatoes and yams and clicked on your picture. I had been buying what I called sweet potatoes, but then my mother-in-law pointed out that they were labeled as yams at the grocery store. Thanks for clarifying and glad I was right:) Sarah

  10. joe says:


    I came here exactly like Sarah. I live in Canada and there is the same confusion between yam and sweet potato.

    Thanks for posting clarification,


  11. lori says:

    Thanks for clearing this up Jenn! I will bookmark it, because I know an hour from now Im going to mix them up again! :)
    I found your blog via google-image search and typing “the difference with sweet potato and yam picture”
    Thanks again,
    Lori from Pittsburgh PA

  12. becca givens says:

    Hmmm, Jenn, your post on Sensational Haiku caught my attention and piqued my curiosity so I had to follow the link … I will have to ponder this … being from South Louisiana – there is a definite difference in our culture between a sweet potato and a yam … both are available, grown by the local farmers … I will have to investigate and see what I discover in their description of the differences. :-) So this adds another hit for your popularity post.

  13. becca givens says:

    Hmmm, Jenn – you piqued my interest from Sensational Haiku post so I had to follow the link. This gives me something to investigate and ponder. I am South Louisiana, and in our local culture, we definitely have a difference in sweet potatoes and yams with farmers to tout both … I will have to delve into it further … in what we grow – my taste buds are much happier with a yam vs sweet potato – although I will eat both. Here’s to another click on your popular post! :-)

  14. Anita says:

    Hmmmm, I was always taught that a sweet potato is in the Yam family. Who knew? Thanks for the clarification! I saw a link to your post on FaceBook.

  15. Louise Natalie says:

    Hi Jenn,

    I found this post through google when I was searching for the difference between Sweet Potatoes and Yams. I’m from the UK and I’ve never really seen yams in the supermarkets over here but I quite often buy sweet potatoes. I’ve seen on american sitcoms something similar to sweet potato mash (sometimes with marshmallows on top?) as a dish at thanksgiving meals and just assumed that yam was the american term for sweet potato. Now I know :)

  16. Karen says:

    Yay!! for you to write this. I have no confusion of the two and always have a hard time making others believe me.
    Now can we talk turnip and rutabaga… :)

  17. Necro says:

    I googled yam vs. sweet potato. I too have been driven to the brink of madness about this dilemma!

  18. Chris says:

    Hey Jenn, I am posting this to be polite, since you have politely requested us to do so. :) I am from England(The UK not New England. :P) and I looked up Yam in google images, so I could post a link to image of one in relation to someone in the conversation I am in. :) I am abit of a joker at times, so I must admit it was for humour.

  19. Beth says:

    I appreciate this information -I have to make major changes to my diet -specifically eliminating the nightshade plants & I thought it was okay to eat “yams”, except I’ve been eating the wrong veg! What I want is a tuber, not another nightshade plant.

  20. shubho says:

    Searched on google for difference between yam and sweet potatoes. Grew up in India where Yams are similar to your picture with shaggy dark skin, but more spherical. Been living in US for 10 years, I have been seeing yam sold in supermarkets which deceptively looked different and more like sweet potatoes. Your blog helped confirm my understanding that yams in US are actually what the rest of the world calls sweet potatoes.

  21. Andrew Syiek says:


    Thank you for your informative, necessary post. One might consider this required reading when trying to understand what vegetable you’re actually serving Christmas guests!

    Confusion between the yam and sweet potato runs rampant from coast to coast as many prior comments confirm. It’s indeed a “hot potato” issue for many a foodie.

    So, kudos on your clarity.

    As for how you were found; upon searching Google Images tab for the truth about the two tubers, your post photo was right at the top.

    Nicely done, thank you.

    Bon Appétit!