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Sweet Potatoes and Yams -- Same Thing?

Don't let the supermarket labels confuse you--yams and sweet potatoes are two entirely different tubers.

There's no doubt about their presence in your Thanksgiving feast. You might serve one or the other for Thanksgiving, probably candied or topped with a pile of mini marshmallows without even knowing its true identity!


There's no doubt about their presence in your Thanksgiving feast. You might serve one or the other for Thanksgiving, probably candied or topped with a pile of mini marshmallows without even knowing its true identity! Although used interchangeably in conversation and in cooking, sweet potatoes and yams are two different vegetables.

Sweet potatoes are a popular crop in the Southern U.S. Like regular potatoes, sweet potatoes grow underground. There are two main types of the vegetable: light-skinned and dark-skinned varieties. Lighter sweet potatoes have firm flesh and are not all that sweet, but the darker ones are soft and sugary. Yams, on the other hand, are native to Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. This tuber grows on vines in tropical climates. It has a brown, bark-like skin and orange or purple flesh. Although their name doesn't implicitly say so, yams are actually higher in sugar than sweet potatoes!

Where did the confusion happen? Dark-skinned sweet potatoes look like yams from the outside, and considering the sweet flavors of both vegetables, it could be easy to make the mistake. The history behind the mix-up dates to early days of slavery in America. African slaves in the South noticed that some sweet potatoes had a look and taste similar to a vegetable grown in Africa, and the name stuck. The word “yam” is still used to describe the darker, softer sweet potatoes, although the U.S.D.A. requires that the label also state “sweet potato” if the vegetable is truly a sweet potato.

Looking for a Thanksgiving recipe using yams or sweet potatoes? Check this one out!
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