Health & Nutrition

December 9, 2010

Which is healthier: a sweet potato or a yam?

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Health, Sweet Potato, Diet, Food
Photo by Stuart Berry

Once upon a time on a farm far far away, a farmer found an orange colored rock in his potato field.  But this rock wasn’t a rock at all! For when he cut it open, it had flesh that looked like one of his potatoes except that it was longer in shape.  When he cooked it, he was amazed to discover that the texture was still firm and yet it had a honey like taste.  It looked like a potato and yet it was sweet!  He called it a sweet potato.

A few years passed and the farmer decided to take a trip down south.  As he was traveling, he decided to stop at a sweet potato farm.  He was surprised to see a whole field of potatoes that looked like his sweet potatoes except that these were varying shades of orange and red! When he told the owners about his sweet potatoes, the owners were sure their potatoes were different so they invited the Farmer to dinner. What did they serve? Sweet potatoes of course; however, when the Farmer bit into the southern orange sweet potato — it seemed to melt in his mouth!  The moist texture of the southern sweet potato and the orange red flesh was slightly different from his northern crop.

The Farmer soon realized that there could be tons of confusion when it came time to sell his crop against the southern crop.  He shared his concerns with the Owners and the owners came up with an idea!  The owners decided they would use the name that the African slaves had been using, “yam”.  This relieved the Farmer and he thanked the owners for dinner and returned home to tell of his discovery of yams.

While the above story is fiction, it is true that in the United States yams and sweet potatoes  are the same.  In fact, the Library of Congress website says “U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term ‘yam’ to be accompanied by the term ‘sweet potato.’ Unless you specifically search for yams, which are usually found in an international market, you are probably eating sweet potatoes!”

A yam is actually native to Africa. According to the California Sweet Potato Council “the term “yam” came to be synonymous with sweet potatoes because Louisiana used the term to market their moist, orange sweet potatoes.”

So it turns out those sweet potato fries are sweet potatoes and those fried yams are sweet potatoes too!

A true yam has rough scaly skin and is not related to sweet potatoes.  They are long and skinny where as the sweet potato is plump and stocky.

The sweet potato has been used as a staple food source since before the colonial days. It was discovered by Spanish explorers in 1543 and has even been used as a coffee substitute!

Even back then the nutritional benefits of the sweet potato was recommended for children in combatting nutritional diseases, according to the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

Sweet potatoes are high in Vitamin A and a good source of Vitamin C, potassium and fiber.  Foods that are high in fiber help with weight management and blood sugar levels.  Fiber, a carbohydrate, has no effect on blood glucose because the body cannot digest it.

For those with diabetes the amount of fiber can be subtracted from the total carbohydrates, according to the Joslin Diabetes Center.

I remember my late grandfather serving me a baked sweet potato (or camotes in spanish as he used to call them) for lunch or even breakfast!  He would pour a little milk and the sweet milk mash would warm me up on cold winter days.  For some mac and cheese is a comfort food, but for me…give me a baked sweet potato with a little bit of milk and I’m in heaven!  Sometimes that would be my lunch or breakfast – just a sweet potato and now I know why: nutritious and filling!

When it comes to nutrition there is little difference among the different types of sweet potatoes we find in the grocery store.  The dark orange sweet potatoes, as with all dark orange fruits and vegetables, are higher in beta-carotene which our body converts to Vitamin A.

Compared to the regular russet potato, a sweet potato offers the bone healthy Vitamin A and is higher in Vitamin C.  So instead of mashed potatoes try mashed sweet potatoes this holiday season!

More on the sweet potato history.

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16 thoughts on “Which is healthier: a sweet potato or a yam?

  1. I do wish I liked this vegetable. I might be a bit allergic. No one in my immediate family can stomach them. We have no idea why this is so. Through the years, I have watched people heaping good-sized portions on their holiday dinner plates and I wished I could join them. It s such an attractive food and those melted/baked marshmallows on top make me go a little sad inside. Marshmallows on regular potatoes does not sound very good at all. 😛

    This was an informative post and a very enjoyable one to read. Cheers! 🙂

    1. Theresa, I have the same reaction to avocados and pineapple. Avocados are the absolute worst–stomach cramps comparable to labor pains! I haven’t always been this way, but after three or four attempts at eating it, I won’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

  2. What a great article! I love sweet potatoes. Could not stand them when I was a kid-but the only way my mother fixed them was with brown sugar and marshmallows. All the sugar was just to much for me. (I like my sugar in chocolate!)

    But as an adult I discovered baked sweet potatoes-yum! What a great lunch! I they are easy to bring to work and cook there. I have a great recipe for an African stew that incorporates sweet potatoes and garbanzo beans-sounds wierd, but is it yummy. Sweet potato fries are a huge treat-much better than regular potato fries. More flavor than just oil.

    I always thought that yams and sweet potatoes were the same. Your well put together article cleared it up. There are differences, but for the most part-what we see as yams are sweet potatoes too.

    Thanks much!

    1. Thanks Donna! I grew up hearing both names and after traveling need to find out the difference. We’ve made sweet potato fries and I actually prefer baking them or throwing big wedges on the grill. Yum!

  3. This was SO informative. I love finding out new things about foods, and frankly was never quite sure about the difference between a sweet potato and a yam anyway! Will definitely be choosing these over russet.

  4. Thanks so much for this information. I LOVE sweet potatoes and have been on a mission to incorporate them into my diet on a regular basis to help my family stay healthy. I had always wondered what the difference is between sweet potatoes and yams. At Kroger they advertise and sell (what I know now) is 2 different kinds of sweet potatoes, although one is labeled “yams”! I have tried both and could not really tell a difference.
    I like them baked with a little bit of curry powder (yum!). I also have found a great, healthy recipe for turkey & sweet potato tacos. Sounds weird I know but it is delicious. Check it out on

    1. Ooh turkey and sweet potato tacos….sound delish and now with the fall temperatures…would be a great post-workout meal! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Am I missing it, or did this article never answer the question posed in the title? That is the answer I am looking for!

    1. Hi Lisa, in the United States the names are used interchangeably unless you are shopping at an international market. So really they are the same and are both healthier options than a regular russet.

    1. Hi Deborah,

      A 1/2 cup serving of baked yam versus baked sweet potato reveals that the sweet potato is higher in calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium (36 mg versus 5.4 mg), zinc, vitamin A, vitamin E and vitamin C. With regards to fat, the yam is 0.1 grams compared to the sweet potato at 0.2 grams.

  6. I really need to know the difference between sweet yam and sweet potatoes and which of them is good for weight watchers.

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