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What is the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams?

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Fall is around the corner which means sweet potato season is upon us. Or is it yam season? In grocery stores across the country, the labeling of sweet potatoes and yams has been used interchangeably, leading to identity loss for these root veggies and leaving consumers confused. We decided to set this longtime debate straight once and for all, so you can fully be prepared to take on fall and all of its root vegetable glory.

Our favorite part of fall? Sweet potatoes! Or possibly yams! The truth is we all have probably called a yam a sweet potato and vice versa. So it's time to find out what exactly separates the two and how can you make sure you are buying the right one. 

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Sweet Potatoes

Although sweet potatoes live up to their name when it comes to their sugary flavor, they're not actual potatoes. They come from the morning glory family instead of the nightshade family. Sweet potatoes are more moist and sweet than a yam, and can come in a variety of colors with red or light skin and orange or white flesh. In Asia and New Zealand, purple and yellow sweet potatoes can be found as well. Not only can you tell a sweet potato by its color, the end is sometimes tapered and thin and usually the skin is smooth. 

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A true yam won’t be found in your typical grocery store. Yams are grown in Africa and the Caribbean, so they are usually imported to the United States. They're most commonly sold in specialty shops, like African grocery stores. Yams are also not related to potatoes, but are actually related to lilies. They can come in varying lengths, ranging from the size of your palm to four feet long. Yams can be white or sometimes purple and are more starchy and dry than sweet potatoes.

So, how did we get so confused?

White sweet potatoes arrived to the States before the common orange-fleshed variety we're familiar with today, so in order to provide a distinction between the two, a nickname was created. During the late 1800’s, the orange-fleshed and red-skinned sweet potatoes were given the name “yam” from the shortened African word “nyami” meaning “to eat.” Unfortunately this name stuck, thus causing this spiral of confusion.

What should you buy in the grocery store?

Despite the information above, grocery stores continue to confuse consumers by incorrectly using the labels for sweet potatoes and yams. We advise you to look at the skin color and firmness to decide which to choose, but be aware that you're unlikely to accidentally stumble across a yam in your everyday grocery store.