Are you eating a sweet potato or a yam? It can be confusing, especially with the long tradition of candied yams at the Thanksgiving table. The garnet yam you so love is– surprise–a sweet potato. Though both are roots, they are not of the same family, they’ve just been caught up in an identity crisis.

How’d the mix up start?

A quick browse through American agricultural and slavery history will find you the answer. During the slave trading years, the soft, delicate white sweet potatoes were common. In the late 1900’s, the firm, bright orange, fleshed sweet potatoes were introduced. Concerned with issues of confusion and labeling, the US Dept of Agriculture adopted the African’s word for yams– nyami. Since then, many Americans have been calling the orange fleshed sweet potatoes “yams.” Stores today still label the lovely, golden-orange fleshed roots as yams, but labeling laws require that “sweet potato” also be listed. Although true yams are growing in popularity, especially with the surge in home gardening, Americans still produce more sweet potatoes than true yams. My search for real yams this last week left me empty handed.

What’s the difference?

Sweet Potatoes

sweet potatoes have a more tender skin and are members of the morning glory family. Sourced: wikicommons

sweet potatoes have a more tender skin and are members of the morning glory family. Sourced: wikicommons

Sweet potatoes are members of the convolvulacea or morning glory family. Their skin ranges from deep brown, purple or red, to delicate yellows and whites. Their flesh varies as greatly as their skin tones running from white and yellow to deep oranges and reds.

Nutritionally, sweet potatoes are very high in Vitamin A (almost 700% of daily dose) and the more colorful the flesh the higher the Vit A. Sweet potatoes are high in calcium, magnesium and potassium and have valuable amounts of other minerals too. They are a fabulous source of fiber, they barely tip our glycemic index and are anti-inflammatory in nature.



Native to Africa and Asia, yams are part of the Dioscoraceae family–like lilies and grasses. There are nearly 600 varieties of yams–staggering isn’t it? However, most are still grown in Africa and Asia. In fact, many sites now refer to them as African Yams to try to trim down some of the confusion. Yam’s outer skin can be pinkish to brown, with a scaly rough texture. Their flesh can range anywhere from the whites and ivories to golden orange and yams can also grow to huge sizes. A quick Google search can reveal the amazing size of yams. When cooked, yams are starchier in nature than sweet potatoes, and based on the variety they may be soft or firm when fully cooked.

Yams have a rougher skins than sweet potatoes and are members of the Dioscoraceae family.

Yams have a rougher skins than sweet potatoes and are members of the Dioscoraceae family.

Nutritionally, yams are loaded with fiber and potassium. Yams are low on the glycemic index and are a wonderful source of complex carbohydrate–which we need for energy. The more complex the carbohydrate, the greater its ability to stabilize your blood sugar, unlike simple carbs. Yams offer high levels of B vitamins, manganese and vitamin C.


Energetics of sweet potatoes and yams.

Sweet potatoes and yams have very similar energetics. Both are warming in nature and nourish the Earth element organs of the Stomach, Spleen and Pancreas. The darker the flesh, the more warming and centering. Both have a full, sweet flavor, and build Qi, Fluids and Blood and create overall vitality and strength.

Ways to eat sweet potatoes and yams (if you can find them)

Bake them–Easy as pie. Clean the flesh, poke a few holes in the roots, place on a cooking sheet (they drip juices) and bake in the oven at about 425 for an about an hour or until the flesh is tender. Enjoy with a little butter and cinnamon or an herbed oil. I always bake up extras for lunches or other cooking adventures.

Roast them–Roast them by themselves or with other roots. Here, too, I cook up extra so meals are easier for several days. If there is any left, extra roots may end up in a roasted root and lentil soup. Steam them–Until just soft. Try them with tamari and oil or balsamic, rosemary, sage and oil–just yum.

Steam them–Peel or don’t peel them. Steam them in the top of a rice cooker or in a steaming basket. Once soft, slit them open and top with a little butter and maple syrup or and herb and oil combination.

Add them to soups

Mash them--By themselves or mixed with other roots. Simplest of baby foods. Stuff puree’s into phyllo dough or ravioli.