Stroll through the aisles of any grocery store and you’re likely to see a plethora of potato varieties. With their creamy flesh and starchy texture, potatoes are pure comfort food. Sweet potatoes have gained ground in popularity over the last few decades, and a frequent question our students ask is about sweet potatoes versus yams – is there a difference? Is one healthier than the other? And where the heck do white potatoes fit in the equation?
In a nutshell: most North American grocery stores do not carry true yams. For many of us, what we’ve bought and enjoyed as ‘yams’ are actually sweet potatoes.
Sweet Potatoes Vs Yams: Key Differences
Sweet potatoes come in multiple colours: white, orange and purple. Often, the coppery-orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are labeled as yams in stores, cookbooks and online recipes. But typically, unless you’ve purchased yams at an international or specialty store (or live in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean), what you’re eating is a sweet potato. Sweet potatoes and yams are two different vegetables.
Sweet Potatoes Vs Yams: How to Spot a Yam
Visually, true yams are brownish on the outside with a nubbly skin that resembles tree bark. Its insides are very light white/slight yellow. They are long, slender and can grow up to 6–7 feet long and reach well over 100 pounds.
Yams originated in Africa and Asia, and are a staple crop that helps provide both nutrition and income to the communities that grow them. They’re low in moisture, which not only boosts its shelf life but also actually leads to an increase in certain nutrients over time.
You’ll also find Chinese yams (nagaimo) and Japanese yams (yamaimo), which are more slender and smaller than African yams.
Photo: Japanese Yam
Sweet Potatoes Vs Yams: How to Spot a Sweet Potato
If you’re in a general grocery store or market outside of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, you’re likely handling a sweet potato.
Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes and Yams
Sweet potatoes and yams are root vegetables and have a similar compilation of nutrients. Both contain:
- Fibre for digestion, heart health and blood sugar balance
- B vitamins, which help with energy levels and stress reduction
- Numbers that are in the middle of the glycemic index
- Anti-inflammatory compounds
- Antioxidants to protect our cells from damage
- Nutrients for immune health, such as Vitamins C and A
- Potassium, which helps us maintain fluid balance and blood pressure
Photo: Sweet Potato
Sweet Potatoes Vs Yams: Which is Healthier?
- are sweeter than yams
- have more moisture
- contain a bit more Vitamin C and beta-carotene
- are drier
- contain more potassium
- are starchier (they have more carbohydrates)
- are a good source of protein
- can be helpful for menopausal symptoms
Yams are less widely studied than sweet potatoes, but overall this isn’t a clear winner on nutritional benefits in the sweet potatoes vs yams debate. Both are an incredibly nourishing food to add to your cooking!
Ways to Enjoy Sweet Potatoes and Yams
Image: Ella Olsson via UnSplash
For the most part, the flavour and texture of sweet potatoes and yams means they can be interchanged with one another.
Note that yams cannot be eaten raw, whereas sweet potatoes can.
Common Cooking/Preparation Methods for Sweet Potatoes and Yams
These are just some of the ways we love using sweet potatoes and yams:
- French fries
- Salads (if using raw, opt for sweet potatoes only)
- Dips and spreads
- Gluten-free baking (use the purée, or shredded)
- In place of mashed white potato topping on a Shepherd’s pie
- Noodle substitution (if using raw, opt for sweet potatoes only)
- Potato Latkes
- Sweet Potato Chips
- Breakfast dishes
- Served as a side with tomato sauce
What About White Potatoes: Are White Potatoes Healthy?
Photo: Monika Grabkowska via UnSplash
White potatoes are often vilified but are rich in nutrients. Like sweet potatoes and yams, they have:
- Vitamin C
When contemplating if potatoes can be a nutritious part of your way of eating, it’s worthwhile to think about how potatoes are grown and how regularly we eat them in our diet.
- In 2021, conventionally grown potatoes were #13 on the Environmental Working Groups Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce, just short of making the Dirty Dozen.
- The varieties of potatoes we can purchase at the grocery store are limited. We are primarily eating russet, Yukon gold, white, yellow, red and fingerling potatoes. There is a large compendium of heirloom potatoes we don’t commonly see anymore, except at some farmers’ markets.
- The way we consume white potatoes isn’t always the most optimal choice to support health, such as fries deep-fried in cooking oils that can be damaging to our bodies, or potatoes mashed with butter, milk and sour cream – dairy products that can trigger a number of uncomfortable symptoms.
- We also eat a multitude of refined potato derivatives in highly processed foods, including potato starch, potato flour and potato flakes.
What About Low-Glycemic Potatoes?
In 2015, an Edmonton-based potato company developed a low-glycemic potato marketed to diabetics and those who are on low-glycemic diets. In our view, a low-glycemic potato doesn’t get to the root of health habits and behaviours that may lead us to feel poorly, develop diseases, or aggravate existing conditions.
The glycemic index and how sugary or sweet foods impact blood sugar levels is important. Yet there are a multitude of ways we can counterbalance the glycemic index of potatoes – namely, by pairing them with quality sources of protein, fat, and fibre.
Try These Sweet Potato Recipes
Sweet Potato Hash
Sweet Potato Hash by Nicola Solomonides (*Culinary Nutrition Expert)
A quick and easy hash you can have for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Sweet Potato Lentil Goulash
Sweet Potato Lentil Goulash by Candra Reynolds (*Culinary Nutrition Expert)
A one-pot meal that’s packed with protein.
Roasted Sweet Potato and Brussels Sprouts Salad with Maple Tahini Drizzle
Roasted Sweet Potato and Brussels Sprouts Salad with Maple Tahini Drizzle by Abigail Hopkins (*Culinary Nutrition Expert)
A warm, protein-rich salad with cooked and raw elements.
All Dressed Sweet Potatoes
Baked sweet potatoes are the ideal base for your favourite toppings!
Paleo Sweet Potato Chocolate Chip Muffins
Sweet potatoes add a great natural sweetness to muffins – you may even need to use less sugar.
Try These Yam Recipes
Pounded Yam from Scratch
Full instructions on how to make pounded yam, a doughy yam ball used in West African cooking that is paired with soups and stews.
Yam Porridge (Asaro)
This well-seasoned yam recipe is an extremely easy one-pot dish.
Jamaican Yam Mash
Beautifully studded with bell peppers, this recipe for mashed yams makes an ideal side dish for any table!
Egg Sauce and Yams
Oven Baked Yam Chips
Learn the tips and tricks to make crispy yam chips in the oven.
Nagaimo, or Chinese yam, is used frequently in Chinese and Japanese cooking. Nagaimo is narrower than African yams, and a little harrier. They make very tasty fries!
Yamaimo is a similar yam to nagaimo, but it has a stickier texture that makes it perfect for binding – as in this vegan Japanese pancake recipe.
Now that you know the difference between sweet potatoes and yams, we invite you to start cooking with them!