What’s the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams?

I’m posting today about something that perplexes me each Thanksgiving.  For some reason I research it and then forget the answer every year. What’s the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams???  I thought if I write a post about it, I’d actually remember this time!!  Plus I did some cooking with all the sweet potatoes I cut up for the post.  My local organic CSA farm called Farm Fresh to You gave me some yummy sweet potatoes and sponsored this post.

is it a sweet potato or a yam Left Brain Craft Brain

What is a Sweet Potato?

So a sweet potato isn’t a potato nor is it a yam.  Confusing!  A sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is what we call a root vegetable because we eat the root, just like we do with carrots.  They belong to the morning glory family called Convolvulaceae and find their origin in the South and Central America.  They had taken root in the Caribbean by 2500 B.C. and are still a dietary staple there today.  Their skin ranges in color from brown to deep purple and they have white, yellow or orangey flesh.  They are grouped into two different categories, firm or soft, based upon their texture when they are cooked.

All the vegetables in the picture below are sweet potatoes despite what the signs said at the grocery store!Sweet Potatoes and Yams Left Brain Craft Brain

Yams on the other hand are a tuber from the Dioscoreaceae family.  Yams found their origin on the other side of the world from sweet potatoes in Africa and Asia.  True yams are drier, starchier and much less sweet than sweet potatoes.  I tried to find some yams at the amazing produce markets in my area but unfortunately, I couldn’t find any.  So here’s a fun picture of a Tongan farmer holding a ginormous! yam. (Photo courtesy of James Foster / Wikipedia)


And lastly, your standard Idaho potatoes are from the nightshade family.  They are believed to have originated in Peru and Bolivia as early as 8000 B.C and quickly became a staple food in many parts of the world.

Why Do We Call Them Yams in the U.S.?

Farmers in the U.S. have been growing sweet potatoes for a long time, but for decades you mostly found the white fleshed, firmer varieties.  It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the orange fleshed, softer varieties became more popular.  In order to minimize confusion, these sweet orange wonders were called yams.  Hmm…  minimize confusion?  Now, the FDA requires food companies to mark anything called a yam with the sweet potato label as well.Cut Sweet Potatoes Left Brain Craft Brain

Thanksgiving Sweet Potatoes

Were sweet potatoes a dish at the first Thanksgiving?  Not likely as sweet potatoes hadn’t yet made their migration from the Caribbean.  The Smithsonian has an interesting article on what was likely served at that first celebration instead.

So you have to be wondering, what did I do with all these sweet potatoes after I finished taking pictures!  I cooked them of course :)  We actually had a mini-Thanksgiving dinner with my favorite Sweet Potatoes in Orange Cups.  This recipe has been a family favorite for a long time!

Sweet Potatoes in Orange Cups Recipe Left Brain Craft Brain 2


Where do I get my sweet potatoes?

We like to eat as healthy as possible in our house and I love to buy organic when our budget allows.  But honestly, I’ve found the organic produce at our chain grocery stores to be a little sub-optimal.  Plus, I like to make things easy on myself, so I get my produce delivered from a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) called Farm Fresh To You.  Has anyone else tried a CSA for their produce?  CSA’s allow farmers to distribute their goods to the average person without a store as a middleman.  And they allow you access to super fresh food that you know where it came from.

CSA Delivery Left Brain Craft Brain

The process at Farm Fresh to You is super easy.  Just sign up, pick what you want and the box gets delivered in the dark of night to your doorstep.  CSA’s a few years ago meant getting a box of farmer-chosen produce.  And unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, if the box is full of kale, I’m going to be unhappy!  Luckily now you can specify exactly what your family will eat, so no waste (this week had a lot of fruit and of course sweet potatoes!).

Farm Fresh to You box Left Brain Craft Brain

Interested in saving a bit of $$ off your first box of fresh, organic produce delivered to your door?  To save $10, use the promo code ANNE5694 when you check out.  FYI, I received compensation for this post from Farm Fresh to You, but I’m a huge fan anyway and subscribed before this post.  All of these opinions are most definitely my own.

For more Thanksgiving food fun, check out 20 Quiet Time Activities for When Turkey Makes You Sleepy.

What's the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams Left Brain Craft Brain FB

7 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams?”

    1. leftbraincraftbrain

      Same thing in our house! Our favorite meal is baking them and topping with pulled BBQ chicken.

  1. Pingback: The Science of Thanksgiving Dinner - 12 Ways to Learn and Play - Left Brain Craft Brain

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