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What is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam?

It’s a bit like the difference between Pluto and Goofy. They’re not quite the same, but almost. Or maybe not at all. Hmmm?

With the stock market tanking and the swine flu looming, maybe you haven’t given it much thought. That’s where I come in and save the day. I’m sure you’re quite curious and on the off-chance you have no clue what the difference is, I’m here to explain.

Why, you ask?

First off, no yawning.

And second, we’re food people, we need to know this stuff.

Yams and sweet potatoes are two different vegetables, they’re not related. If you think you’re eating a yam, it’s most likely a sweet potato if you bought it in a US market. Yes, it’s confusing. Ah, but to enlighten us, the US Department of Agriculture requires all labels that feature the word yam to also include the word sweet potato.


I love it when the government steps in to clear things up.

To add to the confusion, sweet potatoes aren’t related to white baking potatoes at all and in New Zealand sweet potatoes are called kumara. In the ultra-abridged version of Hinduism, Kumara is the commander and chief of the divine army of the gods. He was also in command of an ancient version of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Similar to Luke’s mission, Kumara used his mighty sword to slay ignorance (handy little device, swing away Kumara).

How do I spiral from sweet potatoes to mystical weapons? I keep promising myself I won’t do that. And why is this sweet potato yam thing so confusing? Actually, it’s not. Here are the differences.

A true yam is common in tropical climates (Africa, the Caribbean, South America) and contains more natural sugar than the sweet potato. The word “yam” comes from the African word nyami, meaning to eat. Yams aren’t common in traditional US markets, but you might find some in specialty markets. There are over 150 yam varieties available world-wide.

Sweet Potatoes
We’re eating sweet potatoes if we’re using one of the two tubers shown in the photo above. Sweet potatoes vary in color from yellowish to dark reddish-orange (see my two picks above). The darker one is often wrongly called a yam. They’re both sweet potatoes although the lighter skinned ones are not as sweet and have more of a crumbly, dry texture. The darker, vivid colors contain more moisture and sweetness. I prefer using the red over the yellow sweet potatoes in my gluten-free baking. That way I can go with less added sweetener and also not worry as much about dryness. Those of us who have taken on the challenge of baking without gluten need all the help we can get and to be honest, I’d rather figure out some of my own tricks and tips using real food rather than the growing collection of modified starches and additives.

Nutritional profile of sweet potatoes
Not only are they sweet and moist, they’re packed with goodness. Sweet potatoes are a great way to get your sugar fix in a healthy way. Packed (260 % daily value) with vitamin A and rich in vitamin C, these vegetables are an excellent source of antioxidants. They also contain a unique storage protein that is high in antioxidant capabilities.

Roasted sweet potato fries (one of my favorites)

what you need
• 2 or 3 medium/large sweet potatoes, washed and cut in medium “French fry” wedges
• 1 tablespoon coconut oil or olive oil
• sea salt

what you do
• Preheat oven to 425
• Put prepared sweet potatoes in large bowl, drizzle with oil and gently work it over potatoes evenly
• Arrange potatoes in a single layer on an oiled cookie sheet
• Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, watching carefully and stirring occasionally
• Salt to taste and serve immediately

* You can also use various spices such as paprika or ground cumin to add different flavors. Blend those spices in with the oil.

Go forth and sweeten up your baking the natural way!

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19 Responses to “the sweet potato yam debate”

  1. Anne says:

    Many thanks for clearing this one up. Oh dear, isn’t it worrying when governments get involved? One of my hubby’s favourite sayings springs to mind: bulls..t baffles brains!
    With most meals I have now turned to the sweet potato instead of the white one. However, living in an agricultural area, it is wonderful to use the local new white potatoes in Spring.

  2. Cid says:


    Another great post. I love sweet potatoes especially roasted as you suggest. Along with other root veg and tomatoes, I sometimes roast them then blend into a soup… either way delicious.

    Just thought I should tell you that a woman came into my deli the other day wanting information about gluten free foods. Because of you I was able to give some advice so thanks Melissa, your knowledge is working wonders globally! Interesting to note that since this woman turned 50 her body chemistry had changed as she found she could no longer tolerate gluten… is this common?


  3. When I read your intro, I laughed so hard!! Thanks. I needed that. You are so right. Pluto and Goofy are easily confused. Luckily, I have an often-used Pluto glass mug from a college spring break trip to Disneyworld to keep me straight. Plus, I always showed a movie back in the day to my third-graders where Goofy instructed on math. But, you’re right, with all that’s going on in the world, you need to keep us straight on what’s really important!! BTW, I really like saying sweet potatoes, but I don’t like saying yams. LOL Okay, so I get that yams are not in the U.S., but how are they different? And, I think I’ve seen the better sweet potatoes at my grocery store, but very rarely. Mostly it’s the yellow-orange kind. I only learned to eat sweet potatoes after I was diagnosed gluten intolerant, but I love them now. I haven’t made sweet potato fries, but I’ve enjoyed them in restaurants before. Hubby doesn’t do sweet potatoes, but I’ll make some for myself. Sweet potatoes are so much harder than white potatoes … do you have to do anything special to cut them into wedges? I know that sounds silly.

    BTW, it makes me crazy to see the plastic-wrapped sweet potatoes in the store. Bad for the environment and expensive IMHO.

    Thanks, Melissa,

  4. Miles says:

    I’m glad you’ve written about this, I’ve long been told that sweet potatoes are better for you than ordinairy ones but I was never sure why.

  5. Melissa says:


    Well, I won’t even start in on politics, but suffice to say, I agree with your hubby.


    And I agree with you on the wonderful taste of new white potatoes, but I have grown partial to sweet potatoes. Miles had a recipe quite some time ago where he put sweet potatoes in a similar stew. I should have looked it up and linked to it in this post. I made his version and it was delightful!

    When are you leaving for Germany? We’ll miss you!


  6. Melissa says:


    I’ve done the same thing with blending roasted veg and sweet potatoes. It makes for a wonderfully “warming” soup. It’s been cold and dreary here lately — a “warming” soup sounds good. I might have to make some this afternoon. Seems I should be focusing on spring greens though!

    I’ve watched the growth of gluten-free awareness and foods for almost a decade now and it’s expanding by leaps and bounds. You will be hearing more and more about it, Cid. And those who work in the food industry are being forced to pay attention as it’s one of the fastest growing segments.

    Thank you for your comment regarding your customer. My goal is to increase awareness. There are millions of people with celiac disease and most of them don’t even know it. They’re being treated for all kinds of things that are a result of either celiac or a gluten sensitivity, but many docs never get to the bottom of WHY they have these symptoms. Chronic fatigue, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, migraines, fertility problems, thyroid disorders, anemia, etc. (the list goes on) — all are often coexisting conditions, but they get treated for those symptoms rather than the cause. Not to mention all the intestinal problems, including some types of cancer. Some of these problems resolve themselves to some degree once people are diagnosed and go on a gluten-free diet. It’s a long story, but I’m so passionate about this for personal reasons. Maybe some day I’ll tell “the rest of the story” as radio personality Paul Harvey used to say.

    Your customer probably had something “trigger” her genetic suceptability to celiac in mid-life. If you have the right genetic predisposition and environment (eating gluten) and something stresses out your body to the point that your intestinal integrity and overall health is compromised, you might just “develop” the disease. But just because you have the genetic component doesn’t mean you’ll get the disease. It’s a puzzle and many pieces have to fit before you end up with the disease. Then you have to be lucky enough to have a doctor who is aware of celiac and makes the correct diagnosis. Most people suffer with it for up to 10 years or more before anyone figures it out. Increased awareness in people like you helps all of us, hence my ranting. Sorry about that.


    One more thing and I’ll give it a rest. Back to your question about why this would occur in a woman who is 50 years old. Maybe she experienced something that caused her digestive system to allow potentially “toxic” substances to slip through. Gluten is very hard to fully break down (for most of us regardless of genetics) and if those large undigested particles slip through the intestinal barrier, problems occur. Or maybe she recently visited a foreign country and had an intestinal “bug” that triggered things. Hormonal changes at different times of life can precipitate celiac (puberty, child birth, menopause). An operation, illness, stress, too much gluten — all these things can be “triggers.” You can “develop” celiac (or a gluten sensitivity, which is different) at any age (infant to elderly).

    Well, Cid, I didn’t mean to launch off on a diatribe about this, but it was a good opportunity for me to throw more wood on this fire and keep it burning bright!

    Thanks for your concern, your intellectual curiosity and your wonderful wit and sense of humor.

    I really like you Brits!


  7. Melissa says:


    I almost feel like my response to Cid should be part of your support group. I’m sure you’ve rambled off many of the same things. Wish we were in the same place, we could do killer support group stuff.


    Glad this post gave you a smile. You gave me a smile with your comment about liking to SAY sweet potato, but not yam. Maybe it’s the “sweet” adjective, although yams are actually sweeter. But as far as sweet potatoes go, the darker the color, the sweeter it is. More confusion!

    You need to make sweet potato fries, I can’t imagine anyone not liking them, your hubby included!

    I’ve never seen plastic wrapped sweet potatoes, but I totally agree with on that.

    Take care,

  8. Melissa says:


    Since you’re a guy and probably prefer more concise answers (women have talkative DNA, we can’t help it), I’ll just say — you’re welcome and thanks for your comment. I appreciate it!

  9. CoconutGal says:

    I am so happy you shared this information!!
    I am a lover of all things “fries.” One of my first solid foods after going off my elemental formula were zucchini fries. From there, I moved on to butternut squash fries. I have yet to try sweet potatoes because it is my understanding that these are starchier than winter squash (and I don’t digest really starchy foods well). Is this so?
    What is the nutritional comparison of a sweet potato and a butternut squash? Is one necessarily “healthier” than the other?
    Love your writing, very entertaining!
    Thanks 🙂

  10. greedydave says:


    I’ll always regard yams as a Carribean ingredient, probably thanks to a vivacious UK TV chef called Rustie Lee. But they’re not particularly easy to find in British stores either, which is a little curious as plantains are now commonplace, another essential Caribbean ingredient. My only experience with Caribbean cuisine was at the Glastonbury music festival a few years ago. Myself and a friend were bent on trying Goat Curry from one of the many fast food outlets at the festival. The meat was beautifully tender, but the curry was SO packed with chilli that we could only get through about half of it before our tongues ceased to work and our faces started leaking!

    I’ll have the goat curry with sweet potato fries, please!


  11. Melissa says:


    Thanks for the kind comments. I’m glad you can benefit from my posts. That’s good — it’s hard when you have so many food limitations, we need to help each other along the way! Your posts bring a smile to my face as well.

    You gave me an idea. I’ll do a post on “starchy” vegetables. I try to keep those somewhat limited in my diet and I avoid them altogether when I do a cleanse. It’s all confusing, isn’t it? Geez, why have we made this so convoluted!? But, to clear things up, I’ll do a post on what starchy means and why and when one might be more beneficial than another. Good question!

  12. Melissa says:


    Your comments always leave me with a wonderful visual image and a good laugh. You are a very good writer, with a knack for colorful narrative. You must have been quite a sight with a leaky face and a noncompliant tongue. You didn’t have the lego hair then, did you?

    Your description of the Glastonbury Music Festival is sounding a bit Monty Pythonish.


    You know you’re very entertaining, right?!

  13. CoconutGal says:

    Yay! I’m looking forward to it! I’ve been wondering about winter squash compared to sweet potatoes for a while as I keep seeing yummy recipes for them, and any new food that I can eat is very exciting to me!

  14. Also low glycemic- making sweet potatoes a really great sub for potatoes for people with blood sugar or hypoglycemic issues.

  15. Bravo on your support group talk, Melissa! I just want to add that if one has the genes, but not celiac, one can still have some serious health issues. And, it’s been my experience this is true of gluten sensitivity vs celiac, too. I like Tom Malterre’s definition of celiac as gluten sensitivity that has progressed to the point of small intestine damage (my paraphrasing, but close).

    Did you know that the American College of Gastroenterology recommended in the January American Journal of Gastroenterology that those diagnosed with IBS be tested periodically for celiac? Now to see that start happening!! But, the point (and I know you already know this) that one can have such symptoms for a long time before one tests positive for celiac (if ever).

    Oh, what a support group we could have! Here’s a thought for you … at one of our previous meetings, we actually hosted our guest speaker via telecon. Not that you need any more gigs scheduled ;-), but it worked out quite well. If you need any guinea pigs for a talk, we’re your group!


  16. Melissa says:

    Coco — I’ve got it on my list. Now, I must follow through!


  17. Melissa says:


    For some reason (must be that racy “making love” phrase), your comments go into my spam filter and I don’t always see them right off.

    Good point about the sweet potatoes.

  18. Melissa says:


    As you well know, diagnosing celiac is murky territory and there are so many gene combinations that make one person’s experience with gluten different from another’s. It’s interesting, for sure.

    I’m glad the recognition is increasing and that’s awesome about the ACG’s recommendation to check those with IBS for celiac. It seems if you have an irritated bowel, you might just have a gluten issue. IBS is such a default diagnosis. People need to know WHY they have IBS.

    Good points, Shirley, as always! Thanks for your input.


  19. TinyBrownWoman says:

    I season my sweet potato fries using Chinese 5 Spice. After slicing the fries and tossing in oil, just sprinkle some Chinese 5 Spice and bake. The baking aroma will drive your family wild.

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