You may think you’ve been eating yams, but it’s all sweet potatoes.

Fall is here and the weather has grown colder.  This is the time of year that many Americans start planning their Thanksgiving dinner.  A staple item of the holiday table is candied yams.  Many of us grew up eating yams or sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows and baked until toasty and golden.  Grocery stores stock up on both canned and fresh yams, sold alongside sweet potatoes.  Have you ever wondered what exactly the difference is between the two?

You may be shocked to learn that the items you see being sold as yams are actually sweet potatoes.  True yams are a tuber that is native to Africa, Asia and other tropical regions.  They come in many varieties, are very starchy, the skin is thick almost like bark, and the flesh can be white, purple or reddish in color.  Some are as small as regular potatoes and some can grow to be several feet long.  True yams are most often found in international markets, especially those that specialize in Latin American and Caribbean ingredients.

While there are many different varieties of sweet potatoes, in the United States there are two major types that are sold in grocery stores.  The Covington variety has a rose colored skin and moist, orange flesh.  It has a long, tapered shape and is very sweet.  This is the variety that is known to us as a yam, and has been since colonial times when African slaves recognized their similarity to their native yams, or nyami.  The USDA decided to call this variety a yam in order to distinguish it from the other popular sweet potato, the O’Henry variety.  This one has a golden skin and pale flesh and looks more like a regular potato.  The O’Henry is sweet and creamy and great for soups.  A third variety called the Japanese sweet potato is not as widely available as the other two has a red skin and dry, white flesh.  This variety is great for roasting.

No matter what variety of sweet potato you reach for this Thanksgiving, and even if you still call it a yam, enjoy them in good health with your loved ones.


yams-sweet potatoes

Sweet potato fries at Gunther Toody’s are delicious no matter what you call them!