When you hear the terms sweet potato or yam, you may think they are interchangeable with their nutritional value. But actually, they aren’t even from the same family. In fact, sweet potatoes have lower calories, are sweeter in taste, and have a slightly higher nutritional profile. On the other hand, yams are starchier in nature but remain flavorful and nutritious in their own right. So, let’s explore the key differences between sweet potato vs. yam and see which one is better for you! But first…
Why the confusion?
You can thank the marketing industry for that! Here’s the story in a nutshell: In the 1930s, researcher Julian C. Miller at the Lousiana Experiment Station of the Louisiana State University, developed a new variety of a sweet potato to make it bigger and more tender than the sweet potatoes on the market. It was so different from the smaller, drier sweet potatoes with white or yellowish insides that people already knew.
So, to avoid confusion, the folks who grew these new sweet potatoes decided to call them “yams.” This word comes from West African languages like nyam, nyami, or enyame, which all mean “to eat.” Enslaved African communities were the first to use the word “yam” for sweet potatoes because it reminded them of the yams they had back in Africa.
Fast forward to today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires labeling “yam,” under the term “sweet potatoes”. However, technically and biologically, they are not the same.
What is Sweet Potato?
Scientifically known as Ipomoea batatas, sweet potatoes are a type of root vegetable originally from Central and South America. They are part of the morning glory plant family, which is called Convolvulaceae. It gets its name “morning glory” plant for its habit of blooming in the early morning and closing later in the day, creating the impression of celebrating the morning with its colorful, attractive flowers.
What is Yam?
Stemming from the tropical vine called dioscorea batatas. While they are plants with edible tubers and aren't the same as sweet potatoes. Why are they called tubers? Because tubers are like energy banks for plants. They store energy that the plant can use later to grow again. For example, think of them as the little “eyes” or bud sprouts you see on potatoes that have been sitting in your kitchen for a while – they're the plant's way of saying, “I'm ready to grow again!”
There are lots of different kinds of yams, over 150 in fact! They're grown in various places like West Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean and can be quite massive, up to a whopping 100 pounds! Imagine that! But before we get into the nutritional breakdown between the two, let's examine:
Sweet Potato vs. Yam: Key Differences
Sweet potatoes can have different colors inside, like orange, purple, or even white. The most usual kind found in grocery stores and farms across the United States have orange insides and a smooth, pinkish-brown skin.
Yams have long, brownish, rough and scaly skin that looks like bark and white, drier flesh. Yams have a rough, brown, bark-like skin and usually come in a more cylindrical shape. Their insides can be off-white, red, or purple, and they don't have a strong taste – it's quite mild and neutral.
So, although they look similar, it’s clear to see yams are like distant relatives of sweet potatoes because they belong to different plant families.
Taste and Texture
Since you don’t eat a sweet potato or yam raw, let’s explore their taste and texture when cooked:
Sweet potatoes are known for their naturally sweet flavor and creamy texture when cooked. Some refer to it as having almost a sugary taste. They have a milder taste compared to yams, with a pleasant sweetness that can vary among different varieties.
Yams differ from sweet potatoes in taste and texture. They have a starchy and isn’t as sweet as sweet potatoes. And when you cook yams, they have a consistent firm and dry texture to them. So, they can hold their shape well through boiling, roasting, or frying. This can be to your cooking advantage! Especially is this true using a moisture-controlled recipe. In other words…
When you boil, roast, or fry yams, you don’t need to worry about them becoming mushy or overly moist. However, because yams have a tendency to be dry after cooking, it is often necessary to include additional ingredients like butter or sauces to enhance their taste and make them more enjoyable to eat.
Sweet Potato vs. Yam: Health Benefits
It’s not surprising why sweet potatoes is often considered a superfood! It’s chockful of nutrients!
Sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene, a potent antioxidant and excellent source of vitamin A. In fact, according to WebMD, a single sweet potato provides 102% of your daily vitamin A needs, promoting healthy eyes, a strong immune system, and overall organ health, including the heart and kidneys. These nutrients support the immune system, skin, vision, bones, and reproductive health, and may reduce abnormal cell growth.
Yams are a nutritious food packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They offer potential health benefits, including improved brain health, reduced inflammation, and better blood sugar control. Additionally, yams contain anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants that can help manage chronic conditions like heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and stomach ulcers. They contain a natural plant compound called diosgenin (pronounced DI-os-jen-nin) that promotes neural growth and enhances memory and brain function. Also, this hormone converts into progesterone and the health field has found it to be especially helpful for women's reproductive health.
Sweet Potato vs. Yam: So Which is Healthier?
In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know: Sweet potatoes have fewer calories per serving than yams but contain more vitamin C and over three times the beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A. At the same time, since sweet potatoes are sweeter, they have a higher sugar content.
Sweet Potato vs. Yam: Nutritional Value
Why is Beta-Carotene Good for You?
Beta-carotene is good for your health once it converts to vitamin A, it offers several benefits. First, vitamin A is crucial for keeping your vision healthy, especially in dim light, and it prevents problems like night blindness.
Second, beta-carotene acts as an antioxidant, which means it fights harmful molecules that can damage your body and lead to diseases like cancer. Third, it supports your skin, making it look better and preventing dryness. Fourth, vitamin A helps your immune system work well, making you less likely to get sick.
Sweet Potato vs. Yam: How to Use
You can enjoy sweet potatoes in a variety of ways. For example, you can bake and serve with toppings like butter and brown sugar. Or you can turn them into fries, chips, mash them with butter and seasonings, use in casseroles, roast with spices, or make into comforting soups.
Maybe you’ve tried sweet potatoes in dishes like pies and fritters. Or maybe you’ve used them in savory meals like hash, salads, and curries. They’re also suitable for stuffing or making gnocchi. Their natural sweetness is enjoyed in many households across from breakfast to dinner!
And for yams, they are also versatile and can be cooked in various ways. This includes boiling, roasting, frying (think fries or chips) baking, and mashing (such as mashed potatoes). You can all add to soups and stews, use in casseroles, and feature in sweet dishes like pies and puddings. Yams are particularly popular in African, Caribbean, and Asian cuisines, where they are used in both savory and sweet recipes. So, you have plenty of options to choose from when cooking yams to suit your taste and preferences.
Did you know?
Candied yams are usually made from sweet potatoes, not real yams.
Sweet Potato vs. Yam: Where to Find
While you can find sweet potatoes in just about any major grocery store across the United States, yams are a little different. However, they are becoming more widely available in grocery stores. But for the best chance of finding them, check your local international or specialty markets. You may find yams in the fresh produce section, often near other root vegetables. If you're uncertain whether the yams in the store are true yams or sweet potatoes, sometimes you can verify them by checking the label or asking a store employee for clarification. In some areas, true yams may be labeled as “yams,” which can be a bit confusing due to the terminology as mentioned above.
Sweet potatoes and yams are often mixed up, but they are different. Sweet potatoes are from the Americas, have smooth skin, come in various colors inside, and taste sweeter. They are considered a superfood because they contain lots of vitamins and fiber. Yams, from Africa and Asia, have rough skin, and have white or purple inside. However, they aren’t as sweet. They have more starch but fewer vitamins. So while sweet potatoes are commonly found in grocery stores, your choice depends on what you like and need in your diet!