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What is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam?

Did you know that yams and sweet potatoes are actually two different plants? It’s true. Yams are related to palms and grasses, while the sweet potato is in the morning glory family.

Two. Different. Plants.

Yams are also grown in a different part of the world than sweet potatoes are. Sweet potatoes are mostly grown in the southern United States, while yams are grown in their country of origin, Africa, as well as in Southeast Asia, Central America and the Caribbean.

If you are looking for an honest to goodness yam in North America, you’re looking for one that has been imported from one of these places.

Take a look

You can tell a sweet potato from a yam by the way they look as well. The outside of a yam has bark-like, hairy-looking skin, while the skin of a sweet potato is thin and smooth.

Take a taste

And last but not least: they taste different.

Yams have a dry, starchy taste, while sweet potatoes are moist and distinctly sweet.

A Little Yam History

Originally, yams are said to have received their name in the 1580’s when spanish and portuguese traders adapted the word for their wares from the African word “nyami”, which means “to eat”.

So why, in North America, do we call sweet potatoes yams? Well, no one is completely sure, but one theory states that in the 1930s, an even more delicious version of the sweet potato was crafted by a Louisiana scientist, challenging marketers to differentiate them from the firm variety. Since the “soft” variety looked a bit like a true yam, they were brought into the spotlight under the name “yams”.

To this day, people in North America still use the words “yams” and “sweet potatoes” interchangeably.

Perhaps over time, people will catch up with their correct monikers, but until then, we’ll just have to take a closer look at them in the store to tell them apart.