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What'S The Difference Between Sweet Potatoes And Candied Yams

Although cooks use the words yams and yams interchangeably, they are by no means the same plant. In fact, you’re unlikely to find real yam in a grocery store, farmer’s market, or restaurant in this country.

With rare exceptions, every orange-fleshed tuber you see or taste in the United States, even those sold as candy potatoes, is a sweet potato. Yams and sweet potatoes aren’t even botanical relatives. Here’s what makes these two so distinct.

whole and sliced ​​raw sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes.

pile of sweet potatoes
Yams.

Sweet potatoes.
PHOTO: Floortje/Getty Images
Yams.
PHOTO: Zen Rial/Getty Images

What exactly are yams?

True yams are dry, starchy root vegetables that are closer in flavor to yucca than sweet potatoes. They are native to Africa, where 95% of yams are grown. They have bark-like skin and their flesh can be whitish, purple, or red. You’re unlikely to find true yams in U.S. supermarkets, but they can be found in some international grocery stores or specialty markets.

What are Sweet Potatoes?

Sweet potatoes, which originated in the Americas, are another story. There is tremendous diversity in the sweet potato industry, and growers are constantly adding other heirloom varieties to the mix.

You can find sugary sweet potatoes with snow-white flesh and purple-fleshed sweet potatoes that taste nutty. With hundreds of sweet potatoes to explore, finding the variety you like best is part of the fun.

However, there are some varieties that you are more likely to encounter in the supermarket. The sweet potato most Americans would classify as standard is a Covington, Beauregard, Garnet, or Jewel — it’s orange inside, slightly sweet, and moist.

7 reasons to eat more sweet potatoes

Video: All about sweet potatoes


Why are the words “Yams” and “Sweet Potatoes” used interchangeably?

So if yams aren’t generally sold in the United States, why do we still see the word “yams” on grocery store labels? According to the Library of Congress, it all boils down to semantics. In the United States, firm sweet potato varieties were the first to be produced. When softer varieties eventually came along, they needed a way to tell the difference between the two types. Enslaved Africans already referred to the soft sweet potato varieties as “yam,” because they more closely resembled sweet potatoes grown in Africa, and the name stuck.

In an effort to clear up the confusion, the USDA now requires labels to accompany the term “yam” with the term “sweet potato.” For example, the “canned sweet potatoes” that are often used to make candy potatoes are actually sweet potatoes, and we know that because the can will say “cut sweet potatoes into syrup.” So the next time you’re at the grocery store and see a vegetable labeled both “yam” and “sweet potato,” you’ll know that this simply refers to a softer variety of sweet potato.

Related:

  • How to cook sweet potatoes to perfection
  • Browse our entire collection of sweet potato recipes.


Although cooks use the words yams and yams interchangeably, they are by no means the same plant. In fact, you’re unlikely to find real yam in a grocery store, farmer’s market, or restaurant in this country.

With rare exceptions, every orange-fleshed tuber you see or taste in the United States, even those sold as candy potatoes, is a sweet potato. Yams and sweet potatoes aren’t even botanical relatives. Here’s what makes these two so distinct.

whole and sliced ​​raw sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes.

pile of sweet potatoes
Yams.

Sweet potatoes.
PHOTO: Floortje/Getty Images
Yams.
PHOTO: Zen Rial/Getty Images

What exactly are yams?

True yams are dry, starchy root vegetables that are closer in flavor to yucca than sweet potatoes. They are native to Africa, where 95% of yams are grown. They have bark-like skin and their flesh can be whitish, purple, or red. You’re unlikely to find true yams in U.S. supermarkets, but they can be found in some international grocery stores or specialty markets.

What are Sweet Potatoes?

Sweet potatoes, which originated in the Americas, are another story. There is tremendous diversity in the sweet potato industry, and growers are constantly adding other heirloom varieties to the mix.

You can find sugary sweet potatoes with snow-white flesh and purple-fleshed sweet potatoes that taste nutty. With hundreds of sweet potatoes to explore, finding the variety you like best is part of the fun.

However, there are some varieties that you are more likely to encounter in the supermarket. The sweet potato most Americans would classify as standard is a Covington, Beauregard, Garnet, or Jewel — it’s orange inside, slightly sweet, and moist.

7 reasons to eat more sweet potatoes

Video: All about sweet potatoes


Why are the words “Yams” and “Sweet Potatoes” used interchangeably?

So if yams aren’t generally sold in the United States, why do we still see the word “yams” on grocery store labels? According to the Library of Congress, it all boils down to semantics. In the United States, firm sweet potato varieties were the first to be produced. When softer varieties eventually came along, they needed a way to tell the difference between the two types. Enslaved Africans already referred to the soft sweet potato varieties as “yam,” because they more closely resembled sweet potatoes grown in Africa, and the name stuck.

In an effort to clear up the confusion, the USDA now requires labels to accompany the term “yam” with the term “sweet potato.” For example, the “canned sweet potatoes” that are often used to make candy potatoes are actually sweet potatoes, and we know that because the can will say “cut sweet potatoes into syrup.” So the next time you’re at the grocery store and see a vegetable labeled both “yam” and “sweet potato,” you’ll know that this simply refers to a softer variety of sweet potato.

Related:

  • How to cook sweet potatoes to perfection
  • Browse our entire collection of sweet potato recipes.


Video about What'S The Difference Between Sweet Potatoes And Candied Yams

What's The Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?

Is it a yam or is it a sweet potato? Hilah settles this age-old Thanksgiving table debate and shows you some cooking methods for sweet potatoes.

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