Are These Yams or Sweet Potatoes?

yams, sweet potatoes

The yummy portion of your Thanksgiving dinner that happens to be orange ― is it made of yams or sweet potatoes?  Even if you think you used yams, they might be sweet potatoes after all.

Yams and sweet potatoes are in fact two different root vegetables. And unless you shop in a specialty store, it’s likely that you’ve only purchased sweet potatoes (even if they were labeled as yams).

Yams are the tuberous roots of the genus Dioscorea. They’re native to parts of Asia and Africa, and can grow to weigh over 100 pounds. The word yam is derived, via Portuguese or Spanish, from a West African language called Wolof. The Wolof word nyam means “to sample” or “taste.”  Similar words in other African languages for yam mean “to eat” and “to chew.”

Like the yam, the sweet potato is grown for its edible root. But unlike the yam, it is not part of the Dioscoreaceae family. Sweet potatoes are native to South America, and they were the main source of nourishment for early Europeans in the Americas.

So, why do we get them confused?

In general, there are two kinds of sweet potatoes. The firm, white variety was cultivated first in the United States. But once a soft variety was developed for a commercial market, people wanted a way to distinguish between the two. Because of their resemblance to yams grown in Africa, African slaves in North America had already been referring to sweet potatoes as yams. So, the name stuck.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tries to help confused consumers by requiring that sweet potatoes that are called “yams” are also labeled sweet potatoes. But whether you call them yams, sweet potatoes, or yams-that-are-actually-sweet-potatos is up to you!


  1. Daniel -  November 24, 2016 - 10:05 am

    if the fries i ate that are so called sweet potatoes,but are yam, i am gonna die.
    this is like i don’t know what.yams are bad and potatoes good.

    boys go to mars to get candy bars,
    girls go to Jupiter to get more STUPIDER!.

  2. Daniel -  November 24, 2016 - 10:05 am

    if the fries i ate that are so called sweet potatoes,but are yam, i am gonna die.
    this is like i don’t know what.yams are bad and potatoes good.

    boys go to mars to get candy bars,
    girls go to Jupiter to get more STUPIDER!.

  3. oni -  November 24, 2016 - 8:59 am

    Stuck at on work on thanksgiving..-_-

  4. 시현(she is 11 yrs, living in South Korea), lover of High School Musical. -  November 23, 2016 - 10:33 pm

    I think in korean,
    Sweet Potatoes=밤고구마

  5. ddddsdsd -  December 1, 2014 - 6:04 pm


    • Daniel -  November 24, 2016 - 10:06 am

      dude calm down

  6. dylan eppard -  November 25, 2014 - 8:14 am


  7. Better That You -  December 5, 2013 - 4:27 pm

    Whoa…. didn’t know that… I have just been cheated from the yam experience… by the way, it the commenter whose name was Paco ever reads this, would your name happen to be Katy?

  8. Shirley Kilgore -  November 29, 2013 - 6:05 pm

    I grew up in Texas where sweet potatoes are a favorite food.
    But I was always taught that sweet potatoes are always orange, usually have a non shiny skin, and can range in size from small to very long and large..

    Yams were big around, had slick skins and were always a reddish color inside and out. Some of them were extremely large.
    But the bottom line is whichever you choose, they are delicious!
    A cold baked sweet potato is always a good choice for a breakfast that will keep you going!

  9. Sugar -  November 27, 2013 - 11:20 pm

    I don’t know?????

  10. jiali -  November 27, 2013 - 9:29 pm

    no,sweet potatoes are like regular potatoes.

  11. Thom H -  November 27, 2013 - 7:36 pm

    I yam what I am, but ain’t nothin’ like sweet taters done right!

  12. Thom -  November 27, 2013 - 7:35 pm

    I yam what I yam, but ain’t nothin’ like sweet taters done right!

  13. Joy -  November 27, 2013 - 7:33 pm

    Wow. I never even knew this. This is so cool!

  14. alex -  November 27, 2013 - 11:21 am

    I still don’t get the difference?

    • poopsie -  November 23, 2016 - 7:53 am

      The yam is from West Africa.And was brought here by the Slaves as a staple in their diet.

  15. Mr. CoolGuyBob -  November 27, 2013 - 9:00 am

    It’s just like twilight. Will we be team Yam? (Edward) Or will you be team sweet potato? (Jacob)

  16. Paco -  November 27, 2013 - 8:54 am

    I like sweet potato fries! But were they yams? Have I been deceived? HAVE I BEEN EATING YAM FRIES?

    • oni -  November 22, 2016 - 6:51 am

      Did you read the article? No, you aren’t eating yams at all, probably ever.

  17. Jerald -  November 27, 2013 - 8:52 am

    I used to like sweet potatoes. But were they really yams all along? So do I really like yams? I think yams are disgusting, but what if I eat them all the time! I don’t know what to think anymore.

  18. sar -  November 26, 2013 - 11:59 pm

    this article was confusing. It says they are different in the meat of it then at the end it says they are the same.

  19. Wabbajack -  November 26, 2013 - 10:09 am

    I never even really knew what a yam was. I always look for sweet potatoes, even though they’re not a common find in my country.

  20. Maz -  November 26, 2013 - 3:32 am

    So do you have actual yams in the US? Y’know, the small, red skinned root?

    In New Zealand, we have our own native sweet potatoes called “kumara” which come in a couple of different varieties. I used them for a recipe I got from an American site for Sweet Potato Pie and it turned out well, so I assume they’re closely related to the American ones.

  21. Gordie -  November 23, 2013 - 4:26 pm

    Here’s a great recipe for yams
    1 cup butter
    1 cup packed brown sugar
    1 cup white sugar
    4 eggs
    2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    2 cups peeled and finely shredded yam

    1 cup confectioners’ sugar
    2 tablespoons butter or margarine
    2 tablespoons milk
    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a 9×13 inch baking dish.
    In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, and white sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt; stir into the batter just until blended. Fold in the shredded yam. Spread the batter evenly in the greased baking dish.
    Bake for 30 minutes in the preheated oven, until a toothpick inserted into the center, comes out clean. Mix together the confectioners’ sugar, butter and milk until smooth. Spread over the brownies while they are still warm. They will absorb some of the glaze. Serve hot or warm.

  22. j -  November 23, 2013 - 3:43 pm


  23. j -  November 23, 2013 - 3:42 pm


  24. j -  November 23, 2013 - 3:40 pm

    :) are cool

  25. j -  November 23, 2013 - 3:33 pm


  26. j -  November 23, 2013 - 3:32 pm


    • ddddsdsd -  December 1, 2014 - 6:01 pm

      why so many of those signs?

  27. j -  November 23, 2013 - 3:26 pm

    learning something noo avriidaee

  28. sonia -  November 23, 2013 - 10:55 am

    This subject has been on my mind for months. Are the nutritional values of sweet potatoes the same for both types?

  29. Bylundini -  November 22, 2013 - 7:13 am

    I yam what I yam

  30. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  November 21, 2013 - 8:49 pm

    Every year at Thanksgiving my mom makes mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows and chopped pecans on top. It’s so delicious! Mmmm…
    Of course, sweet potatoes are also good as fries, or cut into slices and then baked with cinnamon and brown sugar. I don’t think I’ve ever had a yam.

  31. Gaby -  July 6, 2012 - 12:31 am

    Where do i find or buy Yams in Johannesburg – South Africa?

  32. Orazio -  January 18, 2011 - 9:47 am

    … oh yes; I love sweet potatoes very, very much !
    I remember my youth, when these delicious roots replaced the sweet !
    Bye Orazio

  33. Ilikemysweets -  January 15, 2011 - 11:52 pm

    What do they mean, “might be only sweet potatoes”? I’ve gone to stores where they try to pass of yams as sweet potatoes. I was raised with sweet potatoes on the table at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. And that sweet potatoes are definitely not yams. To use yams is a sin. I remember how horrified I was when I went to an old boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving, and there was a big plate of canned yams with marshmallows on top. EEEEEK! (no offense to those who like their yams that way)

  34. louis paiz -  December 15, 2010 - 8:08 am

    yams the real name in spanish is yame and it looks like a big yuca they grow the same as sweet jams with the difference that the vind in sweet jams produce many of them but the yame is only one per vind and could be as heavy as 100 pounds each or more the yames flavor is salty and gluei and its collor is purpurish when cooked. so sweet potatoes and sweet jams are not the same sweet jams are white yellow and red but jams or yame are only one collor. thank you.

  35. lingUist geeK-sage(RP) -  December 7, 2010 - 12:46 pm

    Yams are not yummy at all..I hate everytime when my progenitor serve that in Thanksgiving, the mere fact of seeing those yams in our dining tables I feel like I want to vomit.

  36. Felicity Hunter -  December 2, 2010 - 1:17 pm

    I had sweet potato fries not too long ago and they were AWFUL X-(

  37. Felicity Hunter -  December 2, 2010 - 1:12 pm

    you and me both Faith. I aways thougth they were the same, now i frrl like an idiot :(

  38. Mr. D -  November 29, 2010 - 7:44 am

    Yuk, i don’t see how anyone could possibly eat either of those.

    • Alina Zhong, Daughter of Athena -  November 23, 2016 - 7:51 am

      Mr. D, stick to your diet coke.

  39. Faith -  November 28, 2010 - 3:45 pm

    And I agree with you Zachary!! I thought they were the same thing!! haha

  40. Beloved -  November 28, 2010 - 2:53 pm

    Damn I am. Said the fishy when he swam into the wall!
    I is what I yam!
    Said Sam.
    Popeye go home!

  41. LUNANOIR -  November 28, 2010 - 1:57 am

    in South Africa in the 1800′s, in the Knysna bush, a bush woman’s true worth was only as good as the crop of “patats” afrikaans for sweet potato, she could keep groing in the often poor ground of the bush, this was their staple food. I have no idea if this was yams or not, but it could be…

    eitherway, they are super easy to grow, if you have a garden space where nothing much goes on, plant one slightly old tuber and soon you will see the stems grow all over the place and when the stems die down, look for the ground to start cracking, you can have yourself some authentic organic yam/sweet potatoe.

    as a kid we ate it raw. Very destinctive taste, but it gives you gas hehe.

  42. klem39 -  November 26, 2010 - 12:09 pm

    Here in New Zealand we have the Kumara. Three varietes Red (Owairaka) Gold(Toka Toka) and the sweetest Orange (Beauregard) Grown by the Maori they have since been developed in to large root crop. Take half as long to cook as the potatoe, and deliciouse added to mash or in a salad. Traditionaly cooked in the ground with the other veg and meat and hot stones (Hangi)

  43. Esteroid -  November 25, 2010 - 12:47 pm

    I’d like to offer MW an edit to this sentence, recommend changing “Can you “taste” yams in your mind when hear the word, or “see” a color?” to “Can you “taste” yams in your mind when you hear the word, or “see” a sound?” since that is the title of the article at http://hotword.dictionary.com/synesthesia/ which “see a color” is linked to.

    Sweet potato fries are super delicious and also nutritious. Still a lot of fat, though!

  44. ILL-HUMORED | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  November 25, 2010 - 10:09 am

    [...] the mouthfuls of “THANKSGIVING” – as those “RISIBLE” contemplate –- spray laughing marshmallow and Yam on the “CONSANGUINEOUS” at “THANKSGIVING” — stuffing and embellishing and consuming [...]

  45. Miranda -  November 25, 2010 - 9:55 am

    I agree with you Nathan. They are great for year-round cooking.

  46. Miranda -  November 25, 2010 - 9:51 am

    Sweet potatoes are great. So are sweet potato fries. Great for year-round cooking.

  47. Vicky -  November 25, 2010 - 8:27 am

    I love the taste of sweet potatoes and they are healthier than McDonalds fries but when it comes to taste, give me McD’s frech fries over sweet potato fries any day.

  48. Kushal -  November 25, 2010 - 8:12 am

    When there are so many problems plaguing our societies, its strange that we have time and pleasure to discuss what variety of potatoes are we eating! esp. when both the variants appear to be safe and nice to taste.

  49. MannyHM -  November 25, 2010 - 7:50 am

    What happened to my comments ? The picture above shows sweet potatoes with red skin and yellow flesh. Yams available here comes only in orange skin and orange flesh. The most common sweet potatoes available are red skin with white or yellow flesh. The best in my opinion is the one with white skin and purple flesh (Okinawan variety) which is almost double the price per pound in Asian stores. Sweet potatoes are much more nutritious than ordinary potato. Every part of the sweet potato is edible and does not become poisonous. The ordinary potato can make you sick once it develops sprouts and the skin becomes green.

  50. susie -  November 25, 2010 - 7:40 am

    marshmallows on sweet potatos are delicious! :)

  51. MannyHM -  November 25, 2010 - 7:16 am

    The picture above shows a sweet potato with red skin and yellow flesh.

  52. MannyHM -  November 25, 2010 - 7:07 am

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandated that yams also be labeled also as sweet potatoes.
    I agreed with Mike above that it ‘reinforced the confusion.” I wish the Dept. of Agriculture would erase this confusion by promoting truth in labeling. The deep yellow-orange soft (after cooking) fleshy tuber you find in the grocery store is most likely yams, not sweet potatoes ! The best sweet potato variety is the Okinawan type (white skin with purple flesh) and because of the low supply and high demand, the price per pound is almost double. It’s available in Asian stores. I try encourage every farmer I encounter to grow this purple sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are much more nutritious than the ordinary potato. Read more on Wikipedia.

  53. potatoe Eye -  November 25, 2010 - 6:47 am

    I yam that I yam!

  54. pauly -  November 25, 2010 - 5:24 am

    Nathan got it very right. Sweet potato/yam fries, chips…awesome. You can easily come close to making your own. Clean with skin on, then cut sweet/yam perpendicular to main axis into 1/2 inch thick disks. Arrange on baking tray. Then spray each side with olive oil or other spray. Add pepper and salt to taste. Bake in oven for 45 minutes at 375 degrees. The result is awesome for sweet potato/yam lovers. Try it.

  55. Marites Cuevas -  November 25, 2010 - 3:51 am

    UNSA MANA OI! All i can say they are nutritious… so kaon na lng mo.

  56. fml -  November 25, 2010 - 2:09 am

    Living in Okinawa for twenty years, I got used to buying purple sweet potatoes – very good and colorful. Okinawa also has small trucks that drive around selling cooked sweet potatoes similar to the ice cream truck in the States.

  57. Alex -  November 24, 2010 - 11:40 pm

    @Am and @Ariel: They mean when you hear the word “yam”, do you think of the color and in your mind’s eye “see” it. (Though I had the same confusion for a moment. ‘Tis a poorly worded sentence.)

  58. may -  November 24, 2010 - 11:30 pm

    We call it “camote” in our town… we love to eat during our past time. Love to share it with loveones… hehehe

  59. Ruthie -  November 24, 2010 - 10:45 pm

    yams are seldom in markets any more. i remember them when i was a kid. it is always generally sweet potatoes now. Yams are sweeter than the potatoes. They are very expensive.

    And EYEWITNESS: Turnips. the veggie you are talking about is a rutabega, i am sure. My dad mashed rutabegas and potatoes for Turkey dinner. it wasn’t thanksgiving without them, creamed onions and peas, carrots, dressing (stuffing)biscuits, gravy, cranberry sauce, and several pies. no frozen vegetables back then! No store-bought pies. My mom put the turkey in the oven in the coal burning stove and got up during the night to baste it. big old tom turkeys – or hen???? usually 25# for the size family we had. (Turnips are white and purple, rutebegas or orange. Both are yummy. Ya’all enjoy your day, now, ya hear?
    Ruthie – an ex-New Yorker in Oklahoma

  60. John Mayer -  November 24, 2010 - 9:54 pm

    How do you tell the difference? Did you catch the part about yams growing over 100 pounds? They are, then, as you might expect, much longer when mature.

  61. SJValley farmkid -  November 24, 2010 - 9:34 pm

    I have no connection to the owners of this website or to Nakashima Farms, but it is indeed informative & contains more detail than yet mentioned. A lot of California’s & indeed US sweetpotatoes & yams are produced within 25 miles of my location. The Nakashima family are right at the center of production of both of these kinds of sweet potato. (American yams are not true yams at all, as the aforementioned website admits) Indeed, there are many sub varieties which this article does a nice job of highlighting.

  62. Zachary Overline -  November 24, 2010 - 8:59 pm

    What the Hell? I thought yams and sweet potatoes were the same thing. Now I feel like I’ve been lied to all these years. Thanksgiving dinner, you’re fired!

  63. mollyfurie -  November 24, 2010 - 7:12 pm

    Why no pictures? This article does NOTHING to clear up the confusion since it offers not even a description! Here is a more sophisticated Yam or sweet potato ball: Instead of marshmallows, you need a chunk of canned peach, pear, or pineapple for each yam ball. Mash the yams thoroughly, thinning with the juice if necessary. I don’t add sweetining, but if you like it, add brown sugar or agave nectar or honey. Into a handful of mashed yam put a chunk of fruit and ball o=up the vegetable around it. Roll in UN sweetened shredded or flaked coconut. Put them in a buttered casserole dish and bake with whatever is in the oven (it IS Thanksgiving, after all) until it’s kind of browned.

  64. Triolet -  November 24, 2010 - 6:53 pm

    Does that mean Popeye has to say, “…I nyam what I sweet potatoe?”…

  65. Anthony -  November 24, 2010 - 6:38 pm

    I am at work and happen to have candy yams right next to me. Or are they sweet potatoes? Heck if I know.

  66. abbaschild -  November 24, 2010 - 6:21 pm

    How does one tell the difference in yams and sweet potatoes? The “meat” is different colors. One is orange w/reddish skin the other is yellow with yellow/brown skin. Which is which?

  67. Michael Dadona -  November 24, 2010 - 6:13 pm

    I THINK I DON’T GET CONFUSED for which is yam and for which one is sweet potato. I get used having yams prepared separately. Firstly, I boiled yams then later I pound it all. Put it in the baking tray with sliced garlics and mushrooms added. Finally, bake it in the oven. Not just yummy but it’s also authentic.

  68. forth_word -  November 24, 2010 - 6:09 pm

    sweet potato fries… yes: especially in China. here they have sweet potato fries, chips, and strips.

  69. nomingonnyams -  November 24, 2010 - 6:01 pm

    It’s completely re-inforcing the confusion. It’s encouraging the conflation of sweet potatoes and yams, which is actually the problem.

  70. Eyewitness -  November 24, 2010 - 4:49 pm

    Sorry, Crew. “The yummy portion of your Thanksgiving dinner that happens to be orange … ” is turnips. And the more butter you melt on them, the shinier the orange color gets! Tust me. My cadiologist does not need to know how I gained this knowledge.

  71. shutthe@#$%up -  November 24, 2010 - 4:41 pm

    everybody, CALM THE @#$% DOWN. end of sentence

  72. Lynde -  November 24, 2010 - 4:00 pm

    So whatever they are (the red skinned, orangey inside root vegetables)slice 4 big ones thick with the skin still on, put them in a baking dish with a smutch of butter between each slice, then scrape more butter across the top. cover with 3/4 box of dark brown sugar, lightly sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg, cover with aluminum and bake at 400 degrees for at least an hour. NO MARSHMALLOWS! yumyum city. :) Happy Thanksgiving y’all.

  73. butt face -  November 24, 2010 - 3:52 pm

    sweet potatoes are disgusting

  74. em -  November 24, 2010 - 3:50 pm


  75. BUTTER -  November 24, 2010 - 3:02 pm

    Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it!!! And if you don’t then Still have a wonderful day!!!!

    • Megalodon -  November 25, 2016 - 10:22 am

      Thanksgiving is the American end of harvest festival (before shopping malls were invented). I am sure other cultures have similar celebrations. I was told that the British have their Thanksgiving Day on July 4th. Hee hee.

  76. loiswening -  November 24, 2010 - 2:14 pm

    What is the taste difference between yams and sweet potatoes?

  77. I YAM | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  November 24, 2010 - 1:09 pm

    [...] “I YAM what I YAM and that’s all that I YAM,” said Popeye the Sailor Man. — “When you eat your Spinach you’ll be strong to the Finnish” — for his Sweet Potato, Olive Oil — What a healthy concept. — The only thing annoying with the potato that is sweet, is the adding of marshmallows — remembering YAMS are also sweet. — After all it is Thanksgiving — thusly everything we’ll eat. — And be thankful for the treat. –>>Rupert L.T.Rhyme [...]

  78. Laura Claire -  November 24, 2010 - 12:58 pm

    OMG SWEET POTATO FRIES!!!! I LOVE sweet potato fries! You’re rite “Nathan Hunter.” Sweet potato fries do change you. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing though.

  79. mike -  November 24, 2010 - 12:41 pm

    “The U.S. Department of Agriculture tries to help confused consumers by requiring that sweet potatoes labeled “yams” are also labeled sweet potatoes.”

    Isn’t that just reinforcing confusion?

  80. spices -  November 24, 2010 - 12:28 pm

    hello my name is spices and because of my name that offends me

  81. Miss misuderestimated -  November 24, 2010 - 12:18 pm

    u know, u all made me want to eat yamms. however fishes have scales like shankykranjers said therefore i impeach my craving and change it to what is spam on veggiemite toast, thank you alex trebeck, and i want my YAMMS.

  82. SHANKYKRANJERS -  November 24, 2010 - 12:14 pm

    fishes have scales too!!!!!!!!

  83. A -  November 24, 2010 - 12:12 pm

    They meant picture a color in your mind, you jerks. The context of the rest of the sentence makes it pretty clear what they meant.

  84. Meagan -  November 24, 2010 - 12:11 pm

    I think they mean do you “see” a colour when you hear the word yam.

  85. turdunken -  November 24, 2010 - 12:05 pm

    they are like evil twins, the sweet potatoes less sweet more evil but has stealen the identity of its enemy, its sibling, the yam. the yam wants revenge and has taken over the mind of the writer of this article, now the world knows the difference between the yam, and the sweet potatoe, one is alledegly related to hitler, the other just as fair

  86. Ariel -  November 24, 2010 - 11:47 am

    Uh, yeah, I “see” colors all the time.

  87. Am -  November 24, 2010 - 11:32 am

    What sighted individual can’t “see” colors?

  88. fernadez -  November 24, 2010 - 11:29 am

    i totally agree with u Nathan

  89. Cyberquill -  November 24, 2010 - 11:11 am

    Sweet potatoes are yammy!

  90. Anthony Meacham -  November 24, 2010 - 11:03 am

    I do believe I have never eaten Yams or Sweet Potatoes. Though I’ve heard Yams are sweeter. Frankly I think Yams sounds like they would be uncomfortably messy to make into fries.

  91. Nathan Hunter -  November 24, 2010 - 10:31 am

    I love sweet potatoes. Have you ever had sweet potato fries? It changes you. And they are much better than McDonalds potato fries. And infinitively times healtier.


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