What’s the Difference Between a Sweet Potato and a Yam?

(Last Updated On: November 8, 2013)

What's the Difference Between a Sweet Potato and a Yam? One of the stables of the American Thanksgiving meal is the sweet potato. You can find them at rock bottom prices all over the place right now. But you won’t always find them labeled the same way. Sometimes you see the words “sweet potato” and sometimes you see the word “yam”. So what is the difference? Is there any difference between a yam and a sweet potato or are these two one in the same? The answer is kind of yes and yes. Let me explain.

The confusion began in the 1930s. Some southern farmers wanted to market a new variety of sweet potato that had an orange flesh. Yes sweet potato don’t all have the same flesh. The yellow flesh variety use to dominate the market, but now orange is dominate. You usually have to go to a farmer’s market or a speciality grocery store to find other varietites of sweet potatoes. So where did this whole yam business come from? Well they the farmers decided to name the orange flesh sweet potato a yam to make it stand out on it’s own. At the time, yam was slang in the south for sweet potato. Over the years, the two names have gotten mixed up. On an official note what you are seeing as yams are really sweet potatoes.

A woman carrying real yams.
So what is a yam then? It does resemble look similar to a sweet potato, but it’s a tuber that grows in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They are mainly grown in regions around the Equator. Nigeria is the number one producer of yams in the world.

So next time you are at the store and see a sign for yams, I would seriously question that. You are almost certainly looking at sweet potatoes. True yams can be found in America, but you will have to look in area with a market serving the Asian or Caribbean communities.

Also check out these other Thanksgiving-related topics: What is a Self-Basted Turkey?, Essential Thanksgiving Kitchen Tools, Pop-Up Timers, Pumpkin Recipes.