What’s The Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?
We are invited to a friend’s house for “Early Thanksgiving” this weekend, and I was asked to bring something. I volunteered to bring yams. Later my husband asked if I would make my famous sweet potatoes, and I had to wonder…is there a difference between the two? They’re both yummy. They both look like crooked potatoes. To be honest, for the last few years I was laboring under the idea that they were one and the same. But turns out, they’re not!
One In The Same. Or not?
Yams and sweet potatoes are botanically distinct species, but are often confused because they have been mislabeled in American supermarkets. What most Americans commonly think is a yam (usually labeled “Garnet” or “Jewel”) is actually a red-skinned, orange-fleshed variety of a sweet potato! The “Hannah Sweet,” with light brown skin and pale yellow flesh, is the little known name for the variety we generally refer to simply as a “sweet potato.” This variety tends to be dryer and more firm like a russet and is the mandatory tuber for sweet potato pie.
Yams are not grown in the United States and the varieties you’ll find are actually mislabeled sweet potatoes. Yams are native to Africa and Asia and you’ll have to venture to your local ethnic market to find a true yam—a starchy tuber that has an almost black bark-like skin and white, purple or reddish flesh and come in many varieties—and can be as small as regular potatoes or grow upwards of five feet long.
Both the yam and the sweet potato are renowned to be top-notch health foods, but surprisingly, they offer different health benefits and different culinary uses, and each vegetable yields its own completely unique nutritional profile.
Sweet potatoes have a reputation among health food advocates as one of the most densely nutritious (but surprisingly low-calorie) foods on the market. No surprise they are also a favorite of babies across the nation!
Sweet potatoes are packed with massive amounts of vitamin A, a nutrient considered critical in maintaining proper eye health. Sweet potatoes contain significantly higher amounts of calcium, iron, and vitamin E, and they have twice as much protein per serving than yams, and though both are considered low-fat foods, sweet potatoes contain massive amounts of anti-inflammatory compounds, which are very important in the health of people with IBS, arthritis, gout, and other inflammation-related diseases. Yams, on the other hand, not only lack these anti-inflammatory nutrients, but actually contain a number of compounds that aggravate these conditions.
By now most people are aware that it is important to have healthy fats in our diet, and when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, yams are quite preferable. Although both the yam and the sweet potato are low-fat foods, the ratio of essential fatty acids is preferable in the yam compared to the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes contain less omega-3 fats than yams, and have nearly twice as many omega-6 fats, which are known to inhibit the body’s ability to make use of the omega-3’s.
Both the yam and the sweet potato have very low glycemic indexes, which is good for people trying to shed extra pounds, or who are managing diabetes. They also both contain high concentrations of key minerals. They are also loaded with potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous, as well as several so-called trace minerals: selenium, zinc, and copper.
When it comes to eating healthy food, you can’t go wrong with either a sweet potato or a yam. But, when it comes to a winner from a nutritional standpoint, I would have to give the sweet potato a slight edge. But how are they on taste?
I wasn’t sure how hard it would be to find both sweet potatoes and yams at my local organic produce department, and I highly recommend choosing organic! I was successful at locating one of each, and came home to steam up the kitchen and taste test these two unrelated twins. I steamed them until soft, peeled, and ran through my food processor. While still warm I mixed in a teaspoon or so of organic coconut oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
The verdict? Both good. Delicious. And little baby boy agreed. So my advice would be to go with whatever is available and organic; but if you had to choose between the two, the nutrient balance is weighted on the potato!
Have you ever tried a yam? Or have you always thought the yellow sweet potatoes were yams? Let us know in the comments below!