Sweet Potato vs. Yam: What’s the Difference?

wooden plate of steamed sweet potato with spoon, fork and table knife on the side

Sweet potatoes are often referred to as yams and vice versa, but these two tubers are very different vegetables. Let’s get things straight! Sweet potato vs. yam: what’s the difference?

Sweet Potato

Part of the morning glory family of veggies, sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are tuberous root vegetables that originated in South America.

The name can be misleading because it might make you think that regular potatoes and sweet potatoes are closely related—they are not, and they also have a very unique look. Sweet potatoes are longer than potatoes and sport a smooth coat and variety of skin colors. Looking for an orange sweet potato? You’ve got it. Rather have a yellow, purple, red, or brown tuber? Sweet potatoes come in those colors too!

There are two primary types of sweet potatoes: dark orange-flesh sweet potatoes and golden white-flesh sweet potatoes. The first is softer and sweeter than the second, and the most popular of the varieties of sweet potato in the United States.

Fun Fact: North Carolina is America’s largest producer of the sweet potato. In fact, it’s the state vegetable!

Sweet potatoes contain important nutrients such as fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, manganese, and several other vitamins and minerals.

Yam

Yams are also root vegetables, specifically tubers of the Dioscorea genus, that were originally harvested in Asia and Africa. In fact, the majority of the 600 types of yams still come mainly from Africa, although they are also imported from the Caribbean and South America.

Yams surpass sweet potatoes in size and can grow as large as 5 feet. With a cylindrical shape and brown, rough skin that becomes softer with heat, yams have a different colored flesh, from white to yellow to pink and purple. Yams and sweet potatoes also taste different; yams aren’t as sweet but are more starchy.

True yams can be harder to hunt for in the United States, but international and ethnic grocers might have them, and grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are getting better about stocking these coveted starches depending on the season.

As nutrient-packed as sweet potatoes, yams also contain several vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, vitamin B, fiber, potassium, and manganese.

If the appearance and taste are different, why do people confuse sweet potatoes with yams?

The confusion began when African slaves in the United States started to call sweet potatos “nyami,” or “yam” in English, because it was so similar to the yams they used to eat in Africa. When sweet potatoes were introduced to America, producers took their cue from the slaves and began calling the sweet potato a yam.

Sweet Potato vs. Yam Nutrition

Both sweet potatoes and yams can be boiled, steamed, roasted, mashed, and fried. The sweet potato is commonly used to make many Western side dishes such as sweet potato fries and mashed and baked sweet potatoes. But sweet potatoes can also become the star of the dish, especially at Thanksgiving, when they steal the show as sweet potato casserole with marshmallows and everyone’s favorite sweet potato pie.

Yams are not commonly used in the U.S. and are consumed mainly in Africa, where they are boiled, fried, or roasted.

Both yams and sweet potatoes have essential nutrients. Sweet potatoes contain carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and minimal fat. Yams contain similar nutrients in different amounts. Yams have more calories than sweet potatoes do per serving, but the main difference between yams and sweet potatoes is the vitamin content.

Sweet potatoes contain more vitamin C and beta-carotene, the carotenoid the body transforms into vitamin A. One serving of sweet potato fills you up with almost all the vitamin A you need in a day. Yams have a good amount of vitamins, potassium, and manganese, but they contain less protein than sweet potatoes do.

Sweet Potato vs. Yam: What’s the difference?

Sweet Potato Benefits

Many studies have shown the health benefits of sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potatoes for Weight Loss

Adding sweet potatoes to your diet can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick because the high nutritional content of sweet potatoes and fiber promote satiety and cut cravings.

A study conducted on mice fed a high-fat food and supplemented with purple sweet potatoes showed that the sweet potato reduced weight and fat accumulation.

To achieve maximum weight loss, pair the consumption of sweet potatoes with a healthy diet and regular exercise. Our bodies digest sweet potatoes slowly, so you can use the long-lasting energy they provide during your fitness sessions.

Sweet Potatoes for Immunity

Sweet potatoes can boost your immune system thanks to the amounts of vitamin C and vitamin A they contain.

Vitamin A plays a role in many aspects of health. Several studies have shown that vitamin A supplementation reduces mortality among children who have acute measles or an immunodeficiency disorder.

Choline, an essential nutrient present in sweet potatoes, helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning, and memory.

Sweet Potatoes for Diabetes

Studies have shown that high-fiber diets can improve blood sugar, lipid, and insulin levels in type 2 diabetics.

Caiapo, an extract of white sweet potatoes, has been studied to evaluate tolerability and efficacy in the treatment of patients with type 2 diabetes. Austrian researchers showed that the group of participants who took a daily dose of sweet potato had lower blood sugar levels compared to the group that received the placebo. Fiber also slows the absorption of sugar to help prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels.

Sweet Potatoes for Vision

The cornea can become dry, leading to issues with vision. Foods high in beta-carotene can restore vision.

Studies have demonstrated that antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E support eye health and prevent damage. Eating three or more servings of foods that contain these vitamins may reduce the risk and progression of macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes vision loss.

A deficiency of vitamin A can lead to dry eyes, night blindness, and vision loss in severe cases. It is important to add sweet potatoes to your diet to make sure you get the recommended daily dose of vitamin A, which is essential for eye health.

Sweet Potatoes as Powerful Antioxidants

Antioxidants can help our bodies in many ways by reducing the risk of chronic disease and preventing damage to cells. Studies have shown that antioxidants may protect against diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

In addition to these great benefits, a Korean study revealed that sweet potatoes could also enhance brain function and improve memory. The experiment treated rats with purple sweet potato extract and found that it helped to prevent oxidative damage in the brain.

Yam Benefits

Yams can also offer health benefits, but having less vitamin C and beta-carotene they cannot offer the same immunity boost.

Yams contain fiber, which can help maintain a healthy digestive system and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

They are low in fat and contain vitamin B6, which plays a role in the biochemical processes responsible for the synthesis of proteins and red blood cells.

Yams are also rich in manganese, copper, and potassium. Manganese improves general health and helps detox the body. Copper supports the production of proteins such as hemoglobin, elastin, and collagen. And potassium plays a role in energy production, muscle contraction, and nerve impulses.

Forget the Either Or and Go for the Both And

Brimming with health benefits, the sweet potato and yam are equal contenders. Now it’s time to check in with your taste buds, which may just have to be the deciding factor. So, what’s on the menu for dinner tonight? Sweet potatoes or yams?

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