A Definitive Answer on the Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes

In recent years, sweet potatoes have made their way to the spotlight. Making a splash as healthy snacks and even ingredients in gluten-free baked treats, these roots are definitely great for more than just Thanksgiving. But even with their increase in popularity, many are still confused by the difference between sweet potatoes and yams. Is there even really a difference? Let’s find out.

According to the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission (NCSPC), sweet potatoes come in white, orange, and purple varieties, but the most commonly recognized variety is the “orange, fleshy” one that has thin, smooth, skin (5). Sweet potatoes are a good source of beta-carotene, and vitamin A.

A yam, however,  is “a starchy edible root…[that is] rough and scaly and very low in beta carotene” (5). While you may be thinking “What do you mean? Yams are orange and soft like sweet potatoes!”, this is all a part of the misconception of the two roots. The NCSPC suggests that most Americans have never, in fact, come into contact with a true yam, as they are bred in West Africa and parts of the Caribbean. As such, most produce labeled as yams in local grocery stores are actually sweet potatoes. The misnomer is thought to come from an early distinction between the orange sweet potatoes we are now accustomed to, and other varieties of sweet potatoes that are less common, but more closely resemble African yams.

To sum it all up, true yams are long, white roots with rough skin mainly cultivated outside of the US, and infrequently used in recipes. Sweet potatoes, though available in different varieties, are typically orange, have smooth skin, and are sometimes labeled as yams in the grocery store. Now that that’s cleared up, try these gluten free, allergy friendly sweet potato brownies that taste just as good (maybe even better!) than the classics.


  1. http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/vegetables/sweetpotato.html

  2. http://blog.dictionary.com/yams-sweet-potatoes/

  3. http://cesolano.ucdavis.edu/files/59967.pdf

  4. https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/sweetpotato.html

  5. http://www.ncsweetpotatoes.com/sweet-potatoes-101/difference-between-yam-and-sweet-potato/

  6. https://snaped.fns.usda.gov/nutrition-through-seasons/seasonal-produce/sweet-potatoes-and-yams