Guest Post: Yams from Jenn

As promised, Jennifer Ward Pelar has delivered a post on Yams. Wow, who woulda thought a little sweet potato could cause so much confusion? and look at all those pics! The gal’s cookin’!

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Yam tubers
Yam tubers. Image by IITA Image Library via Flickr

I get the letter “Y”! I choose yam. Or sweet potato. Or yam? I’ve heard there’s a difference but, in conversation here in the States, we use the two interchangeably.  Curious to discover why, I did some Internet research only to find it can be blamed on marketing!

Ipomoea batatasL. (Sweet Potato)
Sweet Potatoes are a root vegetable. Image via Wikipedia

There are two types of sweet potatoes. A pale skinned, firmer variety with light flesh that’s not sweet, and a darker skinned, softer variety with orange flesh, that’s sweeter.

The former was introduced into the U.S. first. When the second variety showed up they were purposefully labeled yams to quell confusion.

Well, that didn’t work.

Even today the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the word yam to accompany the word sweet potato. As a result,  many North Americans have been eating the darker, softer version thinking they were yams, and have never even seen an actual yam.

Besides the fact they are both flowering plants, the two have very little in common. They aren’t related at all, and wouldn’t even be considered distant cousins in the human world.

Kiekie yams-processed
Tongan farmer showing off his prized yams.Image via Wikipedia

Yams are a tuber of a tropical vine. Sweet potatoes are the root of a vine. Yams are long, cylindrical in shape and have been around since 50,000 B.C. Sweet potatoes are short and blocky in shape and were consumed in the Prehistoric Age. Yams are higher in vitamin C and have more sugar. Sweet potatoes are higher in vitamin A, lower in calories, and have virtually no fat. Nutritionally, the sweet potato is the better choice.

Yams are large, and can grow up to the size of a man’s arm. The yam has skin resembling the bark of a tree; its flesh can range in color from off-white to red. Grown in the tropics, there are over 600 varieties of yams, 95% of those grown in Africa.

To show the confusion, I bought canned yams to make a sweet potato pie. Even though the can claimed YAMS in bold white letters the first ingredient listed on the can was sweet potatoes! I used Norah’s recipe from See. Read. Cook.  Passed down from her mother, Norah claims it’s the best, hands down. Well, you know I had to try it!

I halved the recipe, used olive oil instead of butter, and mixed white sugar with sugar in the raw. I creamed the olive oil and yams with the food processor. I still had enough to make two pies. I made baby pies with the left overs, improvising with a graham cracker crust. They turned out beautifully.

Is there food from your country or region that causes confusion – like yams and sweet potatoes caused me?

Filippone, P. (2006). Sweet Potato and Yam Difference. Guide. Retrieved from Library of Congress. (2010). Everyday Mysteries. Fun Science Facts from The Library of Congress. Retrieved from Reinagel, M. (2010). The Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams. Self Magazine. Retrieved from M Sisson. (2010, November 17). A Visual Guide To Yams and Sweet Potatoes: Mark’s Daily Apple blog. Retrieved from


8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Yams from Jenn

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  1. I took the pie to the party and no one ate it! It had one slice missing at the end, and that was because my girlfriend knew I made it. But Michelle ate the three little ones. Isn’t she sweet? I was a little worried maybe it didn’t taste good, so I had some when I came home, but the big pie was fine. It tasted just like sweet potatoes. I froze it. 🙂

  2. Augh! Sorry. Just going through email and tryng to catch up. I got your message. To explain about the pies: I chose a recipe that made two pies. I cut it in half because I only needed one pie. BUT because I used olive oil instead of butter, it made the filling thinner and I had enough for two. I had some mini pie pans I use when my little niece comes to visit. I make her her very own little pies so she feels special. I had three of those and I used them all! So I had one big one and 3 little ones. I put the foil around the big one because the recipe said if the crust begins to brown to cover it with foil. It was a little darker because I cooked it the full hour+ it said on the recipe. But I put the little ones in there only the last half hour. They were lighter in color, but they all tasted the same. That’s why they look like they’re different colors. I don’t know why the little ones look raised. They were just fluffier. ?? Maybe I left the big one in too long. I don’t know. They tasted good….? 🙂

    1. Ohhhhhhh! I get it. Too bad nobody ate them at the party. But maybe they weren’t in the mood for sweet potato pie? Michelle must have liked them or she would have eaten only one of them! When I lived in Montreal I had a friend from Texas and he always made sweet potato pie at Xmas! That’s the only time I’ve ever eaten it. I love sweet potatoes and thought I’d like the pie but it was way too sweet for me. He used to joke when I asked him what was in it: “Sugar Alison, white sugar and some brown sugar and a few sweet potatoes, and sugar.”

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