Posted by: Jack Henry | November 27, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Sweet Potato or Yam?

Sweet potatoes have always been one of my favorite Thanksgiving foods. For most of my life, I used the terms sweet potato and yam interchangeably. A few years ago, I was surprised to learn that yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing, and I’ve never actually eaten a yam.

Sweet Potatoes

The orange root vegetable that you might have enjoyed baked on Thanksgiving is a sweet potato, not a yam. Sweet potatoes are native to the Americas, but about 80 percent of sweet potatoes are now grown in China.

Sweet potatoes are not biologically related to potatoes, but the word potato (from Spanish patata, from Taino batata) originally referred to what we now call a sweet potato.


Yams have white (not orange) flesh and are much larger than sweet potatoes (often weighing 10 pounds or more). They are described as tasting “starchier” than sweet potatoes.

Yams are a dietary staple throughout West Africa, and about 66 percent of yams are grown in Nigeria. Yams are also eaten in the Philippines, Costa Rica, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, India, Nepal, and Fiji (according to Wikipedia), but are not common in the United States.

The word yam comes from Portuguese inhame and Spanish ñame, from a West African word meaning “to eat” (probably the Fulani word nyami).

Why the Confusion?

There are many varieties of sweet potatoes. Some stay firm and dry when you cook them. Others get soft and moist. In the United States, firm sweet potatoes were produced first. When soft sweet potatoes were introduced to the United States, they were called yams to differentiate them.

This misnomer has stuck around, and you can still find soft sweet potatoes sold as yams in many supermarkets (although the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires their labels to also include the term sweet potato).

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar®
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