Difference between Yams and Sweet Potatoes

Did you know that the word yam is commonly used to refer to a type of sweet potato rather than a yam itself? What you call a yam is probably a sweet potato. It is even possible that you have never actually eaten a yam!

In most stores, what is labeled as a yam is actually a variety of sweet potato, a sweet and orange-colored root vegetable. A yam is also a root vegetable, but is not commonly found. This article will help you differentiate between an actual yam, and the sweet potatoes you have been calling yams!



Yams vs Sweet Potatoes

A yam is a root vegetable common to Africa and Asia that is starchy and belongs to the genus Dioscorea. Yams are imported into the Caribbean and American markets. Yams have a rough and scaly texture and have a very low level of beta carotene.

sweet potatoes
A variety of sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are common all over the world. They are root vegetables with white or orange flesh. Most people are accustomed to the variety of sweet potatoes that have white flesh. However, the other variety with orange flesh is the one that is most often confused with yams. It is actually referred to as a yam in most outlets in America.

Comparison Chart

Yams Sweet Potatoes
Starchier and drier flesh Soft or firm flesh
Cylindrical in shape Elongated with tapered ends
Have a brownish or black bark-like skin Have soft golden or copper skin
Purple, red or whitish flesh Either orange or whitish flesh

Yams vs Sweet Potatoes

What is the difference between yams and sweet potatoes, then? The difference between these two root vegetables is in their origin, appearance and flesh.

There are two common sweet potatoes: the one with a golden skin and white flesh that is firm, and the other with copper skin and orange flesh that is soft. Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family and have an elongated shape and tapered ends. The one with orange flesh is the one referred to as a ‘yam’ in most American outlets. It was introduced into the markets several decades ago and, because it needed to be distinguished from the white variety that was very common then, producers and sellers coined the word ‘yam’ – an English form of the African word ‘nyami’. ‘Nyami’ is the name the African slaves used to call the orange fleshed sweet potatoes since they resembled the yams they were used to back in Africa.

Yams are native to Asia and Africa. Most of the current supply comes from Africa. Yams can be as small as the common potato, or as huge as five feet long. They are cylindrical in shape and are brownish or black in color. They have a bark-like skin and a purple, red or whitish flesh. Yams are starchier and drier than sweet potatoes. True yams are difficult to find in most American outlets. What you find labeled as yams in a U.S. grocery store, for example, is the soft sweet potato that has a deep orange flesh – not an actual yam. You might have to check in international markets or specialty outlets to find a genuine yam.


For more information, watch this video detailing the difference between a sweet potato and a true yam, showing their respective plants: