What’s the difference between sweet potatoes and yams? It seems like one of those age-old questions, kind like “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” The more relevant question this time of year might be “What’s on my Thanksgiving table? Sweet potatoes or yams?” 

Sweet potatoes and yams are one of Autumn’s greatest food staples

roasted sweet potatoes with rosemarySweet potato pie, candied yams, mashed sweet potatoes, sweet potato soufflé, roasted yams–they all kind of taste the same, don’t they? When you go to the grocery store, do you look for sweet potatoes or yams? If your recipe calls for sweet potatoes but you can only find garnet yams or jewel yams, what do you do? Do you scrap the recipe or do you substitute the yams for the sweet potato?

When it comes to the sweet potato and yam side dishes and desserts we typically think of, it really makes no difference. The sweet potatoes and yams you see in a regular grocery store are really just different varieties of the same sweet vegetable: they are all sweet potatoes. In fact, the term “sweet potato yam” really should be called “yam sweet potato.”

So are sweet potatoes and yams really all the same?

No. Yams are not just varieties of sweet potatoes. True yams are actually a completely different category of vegetable and have no relation to potatoes or sweet potatoes. Let’s learn more about what actual yams are.

When you see the term “Chinese yam” or “wild yam,” these are actually referring to this different type of yam which is in the Dioscoreae family. This family has about 200 different varieties, which are different sizes and colors, and they are native to Africa, Asia, and can also be found in the tropical regions of North and South America.

Like sweet potatoes, the flesh may range in color from white, ivory, or yellow to purple. But unlike sweet potatoes, a yam has a thick, rough, scaly (even sometimes “hairy”) skin which can be white, pink or brownish-black. Their shape is long and cylindrical (oftentimes having offshoots referred to as “toes”), and they can grow to be several feet long.

Yams have played a central role in the diets of many different countries for thousands of years. They are used in stir fry and roasted vegetable dishes, and have an earthy NOT too sweet taste.

Yams have several health benefits and contain many nutrients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, fiber, and potassium. They also contain a storage protein called discorin, which may benefit those with certain cardiovascular issues.

Wild yam and hormonal activity

Wild yam cross sectionWild yams and wild yam extract are also considered by many alternative or herbal healing practitioners to help balance out women’s hormones and relieve symptoms during menopause. Women across cultures in which wild yams grow have managed their symptoms using them as food and topically for thousands of years.

Some of the published clinical research warns that consuming wild yam or wild yam extract can cause harm (especially if taken while the woman is already taking a pharmaceutical synthetic hormone prescription). If you are considering adding wild yam to your diet or regimen to manage symptoms of menopause or other hormonal imbalances, we highly recommend that you do your own research and see what makes sense to you. Talk to a couple of different healthcare providers from different modalities about it and get different perspectives. It is your decision whether to add hormones or possible hormone precursors to your regimen or not. Whatever your decision, make sure it is an informed one.

There are many topical wild yam creams available on the market. Be sure to read the labels, since many of them contain endocrine disrupting chemicals like parabens and synthetic fragrances. Also ask about the source of the wild yam extract in the cream itself to make sure it is natural and from the right type of yam.

What about sweet potatoes?

Sweet potatoes, on the other hand are members of the Convolvulaceae family. FYI, neither sweet potatoes nor yams are related to common potatoes, which are in the Solanaceae family. Did you know that there are approximately 400 different varieties of sweet potatoes? Some may look like common potatoes on the outside, some may be much larger with smooth skin and tapered ends. The flesh of the sweet potato may be almost white, cream, yellow, orange, pink, or deep purple, although white/cream and yellow-orange flesh are most common.

Sweet potatoes are healthy to eat year ’round, not just for the holidays, if they are prepared in a healthy way–meaning not candied! Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet enough as it is–there is no need to add any form of sugar to make them taste delicious. 

Whole and cubed sweet potatoesIf you are a person with sugar cravings, try eating sautéed or roasted sweet potatoes more often and see if your cravings decrease. We love them sautéed or roasted with ghee or coconut oil, and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and ginger. Sweet potatoes also are known to help support healthy blood sugar.

Sweet potatoes are an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich food. They contain anthocyanins and beta-carotene (bioavailable precursor of Vitamin A). They also contain storage proteins called sporamins, and naturally occuring antifungal and antibacterial properties. Research continues to reveal more specific anti-inflammatory benefits–even though sweet potatoes are not the same as yams, they are still a very healthy food.

Why the confusion between sweet potatoes and yams?

Since sweet potatoes and yams are clearly two very different and unrelated foods, why are they even associated with each other?

According to The World’s Healthiest Foods:

“When the moist-fleshed orange-colored sweet potato was introduced into the United States in the mid-20th century, producers wanted to distinguish it from the white-fleshed sweet potato that most people were used to. They adopted the word ‘yam’ from nyami, the African word for the root of the Dioscoreae genus of plants. While there are attempts to distinguish between the two, such as the U.S. Deparment of Agriculture’s labeling requirement that the moist-fleshed, orange-colored sweet potatoes that are labeled as ‘yams’ also be accompanied by the label ‘sweet potato,’ for many people this does not help to clarify the distinction between the two very different root vegetables.”

True yams aren’t even widely available in most parts of the United States; you’d have to go to a very specialized health food or African/South American/Asian specialty store to find them. So go ahead and enjoy the many beautiful and delicious varieties of sweet potatoes not just this Thanksgiving, but all year ’round. 

What’s your favorite way to enjoy sweet potatoes or wild yams?

Please share with us in the comments!