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

Sweet potatoes and yams. They’re the same thing, right?

Not really. They look and taste different. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are sweeter with a smooth, thin skin. They are short and blocky with tapered ends. U.S.-grown sweet potatoes usually are copper, rose, red or purple with orange, white, or purple flesh. Yams (Dioscorea sp.) are starchy with a rough, scaly skin. They are longer and more cylindrical with protruding flesh that some call “toes.” They can range from Irish potato-size to 5 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds.

They are also botanically different. Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family of plants, called the Convolvulaceae family. Yams belong to a different family, called Dioscoreaceae. The edible parts of sweet potatoes are called roots, and yams are classified as tubers. Sweet potato plants are more prolific, producing 4-10 roots per plant. Yams produce just 1-5 tubers per plant.

You won’t find many true yams in U.S. grocery stores because they require specific growing conditions found in the Caribbean. Yams are commonly grown in Africa, South America, and Central America. Although you can find canned potatoes that are marketed as yams, you’ll notice that they are also labeled as sweet potatoes and the first ingredient is sweet potatoes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires this dual labeling when sweet potatoes are labeled as yams. You can read more about how the terms sweet potato and yam became interchangeable in an article by our friends at North Carolina State University Extension.

Both are very nutritious, providing a variety of vitamins and minerals. Sweet potatoes have properties that medical professionals believe can help protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease. Diabetics can safely add sweet potatoes to their diets because of the roots’ low glycemic index.

Sweet potatoes and yams aren’t just great during the holidays. They are a great choice for year-round recipes. You can make everything from soups to breads. And you can even support Mississippi farmers, who grow sweet potatoes.

Vardaman, Mississippi, is billed as the sweet potato capital of the world and is one of the nation’s top producers of the agricultural commodity.

Try one or both of these The Food Factor sweet potato recipes tonight or for your holiday gatherings.

Learn more about Mississippi sweet potatoes and discover recipes to try on the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council website.

Our friends at Texas A&M Agrilife Extension have more information about the differences between sweet potatoes and yams along with a few recipes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture SNAP-Ed Connection website has resources for learning and teaching about sweet potatoes and yams. You also can find recipes to try.

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