Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams: What’s the Difference?

Imagine this scenario: you’re at the grocery store, preparing for your upcoming holiday dinners, and on your shopping list, you have sweet potatoes. As you browse the produce section, you spot them nestled between the onions and garlic. However, upon closer inspection, you notice the sign reads “yams.” Right beside the yams are sweet potatoes, and they look quite similar. Now, the question arises: which one should you choose?

To clear up this culinary conundrum, we consulted with some experts on root vegetables to uncover the distinctions and commonalities between sweet potatoes and yams. Dr. Lorin Harvey, an assistant professor and specialist in sweet potatoes at Mississippi State University, and Jessica Gavin, a food scientist and blogger, shed light on the matter. Here’s their explanation of the sweet potato vs. yam dilemma.

What Exactly Is a Sweet Potato?

According to Gavin, “Sweet potatoes are known for their starchy texture and sweet, flavorful flesh.” She points out that sweet potatoes are primarily categorized by the color of their flesh, not their skin. In the grocery store, you’ll typically encounter varieties with orange, white, and purple flesh. Harvey adds, “They are characterized by their short, blocky shape with tapered ends, resembling a football. When cooked, sweet potatoes have a delightful sweet taste and a moist, creamy texture.”

And What About Yams?

Harvey explains, “Yams, on the other hand, are generally recognized by their rough, scaly, brownish skin and their white to purple flesh.” She goes on to describe their appearance as often long and cylindrical, sometimes featuring off-shoots known as ‘toes.’ Unlike sweet potatoes, yams are not very sweet and have a rather dry, starchy texture.

Spotting the Differences

Beyond their visual disparities, sweet potatoes and yams also exhibit distinct flavor profiles. Gavin notes, “Yams are notably less sweet compared to sweet potatoes, offering a more earthy and neutral flavor. You’ll notice that sweet potatoes tend to have a softer, somewhat mushy texture when cooked, whereas yams are drier and possess a starchy consistency similar to russet potatoes.”

From a scientific perspective, sweet potatoes and yams differ significantly as well. Harvey clarifies, “They aren’t related and don’t belong to the same botanical family. Sweet potatoes are considered storage roots and are cultivated from vine cuttings known as slips, whereas yams are categorized as tubers and are grown from pieces of the tubers.”

Seeking Similarities

As Harvey rightly points out, the differences between sweet potatoes and yams far outweigh any similarities. They share the fact that both grow in the ground, but that’s where the resemblances end. Here’s where it can get perplexing.

When you encounter a product labeled as a yam in your local grocery store, it’s highly likely that it’s actually a sweet potato that’s been mislabeled. Harvey elaborates, “The terminology is often used interchangeably. Several decades ago, when the U.S. primarily produced white-fleshed sweet potatoes, the introduction of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes led people to refer to them as yams to distinguish between the two.” So, regardless of what you choose, you’re most likely picking up a sweet potato during your grocery store visit.

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