Are Sweet Potatoes The Same as Yams? Are They Even Potatoes?!! June 24 2016

It's frustratingly confusing if you've ever tried to figure out the difference between yams and sweet potatoes in the store. Or given a list to a loved one who comes back with a white vegetable instead of the orange one you expected. 

So what's the deal?  Well, we discovered we have some linguistic antics and a marketing campaign from the 1930's to help explain why everything so darn weird. 

First, though, the answer is, NO they're not actually potatoes. Say what?! 

True potatoes are related to other nightshades like tomato, peppers, and tobacco, which are all part of the family of Solanaceae plants.  More than 200 species of potato hail originally from moist and cool parts of Central and South America, but sweet potatoes aren't one. Good news for you folks who don't eat nightshades.

The sweet potato, which is the storage root of Ipomoea batatas,  are part of the morning glory family.  These guys are also native to South America and traveled back to Europe with Columbus and onto China from there. (China now grows and eats more sweet potatoes than the Americas).

These sweet not-actually-potatoes show up in lots of different colors as well including the pale white, purple, and of course the most commonly known dark orange.

Orange is variety we see most often here in the States, especially as sweet potato fries. But if you go to the store, you won't find orange sweet potatoes. Instead, perplexed, you'll be staring at different kinds of yams with names like "Garnet" and "Jewel."  The white ones are usually labeled sweet potatoes. Why, oh why?

Back to Basics Kitchen in Broomfield, Colorado explains the difference between sweet potatoes and yams.


True yams are tubers of tropical plants that are related to grasses and lilies. There are a few cultivated species around the world, including from Africa, but they're rare in the US. And Africa is our connect to the sweet potato / yam confusion.

In Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini, Elizabeth Schneider reveals, “The English word ‘yam,’ surmised to be of West African origin came via a word recorded by Portuguese slave traders, inhame (pronounced eenyam)." Slaves also used this word in the American South, erroneously, to refer to the sweet potato that reminded them reminded them of the starchy, edible tuber of the name that grew in their homeland. 

Then in the 1930's some Louisiana farmers decided to use the confusion to their advantage and make it official. They re-branded and marketed their orange sweet potatoes as "yams" to help differentiate their variety from the pale sweet potatoes typically grown in more northern states like Virginia. And the sweet potato yam was born.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Lime from Back to Basics Kitchen with delivery in Louisville, Lafayette, and Boulder.
Hence we offer you Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Lime this menu. They'll be tender, orange, and delicious with an exciting burst of fresh lime to compliment their sweet flavor.... and the vegetable we'll be making them from is called a Garnet Yam. Now you know why! Check out more sweet potato facts from Louisiana farmers here.