Sweet Potatoes Versus Yams: The Real Story

Sweet potato season is upon us. And though most Southerners, such as ourselves, correctly refer to the orange root vegetable by its rightful name "sweet potato," some people (i.e. Yankees) insist on calling them yams. Intrigued by the various appellations, I set out to discover once and for all if sweet potatoes and yams are in fact one and the same or different vegetables altogether.

Sweet potatoes are, shockingly enough, actually the vegetable we think of as sweet potatoes. A dicotyledonous plant belonging to the family Convolvulacea, the sweet potato is small root vegetable with vivid orange flesh. It is native to tropical parts of South America, where it was first domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. It provides Vitmanin A, lots of Betacarotene, and Vitamin B2. Plus it goes well with marshmallows and brown sugar.

Yams, on the other hand, are huge tubers grown on perennial herbaceous vines. They have tan skin and pale flesh. Much larger than a sweet potato, the yam can grow up to eight feet long and weigh up to 150 pounds. They are grown and consumed largely in Africa, as well as parts of Asia. Excessive skin contact with the raw skin of a yam can cause a burning sensation. Yams offer tons of vitamin C, fiber, vitamin B6 and potassium. In Nigeria they are often served boiled and mashed in a delicious dish called fufu.

What is also interesting is that sweet potatoes are not even closely related to white potatoes. In fact, when sweet potatoes were first brought to the United States, they were often called yams in order to set them apart from regular potatoes. The real kicker is that the USDA, in order to prevent confusion, requires that sweet potatoes labeled as yams also be labeled as sweet potatoes. So now you have a contribution to the family Thanksgiving trivia portion of the dinner conversation. You can thank me in leftovers.

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