Winter Produce Guide: Sweet Potato or Yam?

by Anastassia Skarlinski

“I yam what I yam,” or is that a sweet potato? Most people do not realize that there’s a difference. While both yams and sweet potatoes are starchy tuberous roots, they are, in fact, from different plants. Yams are a traditional West African ingredient, and sweet potatoes are a New World crop. When slaves were brought to the Americas, where yams were not available, sweet potatoes were adapted to fill a culinary gap. Ingredients such as these are called transfer foods, which allowed enslaved people to preserve traditions as best as they could.

In the early 1900s, a Louisiana researcher developed a new kind of sweet potato. These had higher vitamin A content, smoother flesh, and more tender skin. To separate his sweet potatoes from the original he named his new vegetable “yam”. Today the USDA requires the words yam and sweet potato to be used in their description. This has caused persistent confusion in the United States as to the difference between sweet potatoes and yams.

Today over 70% of yams consumed around the world are grown in Nigeria. Yams have a starchy flesh that can be white, yellow, pink, or purple with dark barky skin. They come in various sizes and shapes, ranging from the size of a small potato to over 5 feet long. No matter the size or color, they are a great source of vitamins and minerals. Yams are a good source of Vitamins C, E, and B5, potassium, manganese, and copper. Copper might sound like an odd thing to want to include in your diet, but it is essential for maintaining your bones, blood vessels, and nerves. It is also a vital assistant to iron in the production of red blood cells.

Sweet potatoes are one of North Carolina’s biggest crops, over half of the sweet potatoes consumed in the US are grown here. Sweet potatoes are slender with tapered ends, the skin is usually red or copper-colored and the flesh is orange or white. Whether white or orange, sweet potatoes are a great source of Vitamins A, C, B5, and B6, manganese, potassium, niacin, and copper. Also, sweet potatoes and yams are great sources of soluble and insoluble fiber.

Both yams and sweet potatoes can be used in similar ways to regular potatoes: boil, roast, or tossed into a stew. The starch content of yams is used in the Nigerian dish fufu—a stretchy starchy side served with soups and stews. The sweet aspect of sweet potatoes is seen in many of their preparations, such as sweet potato pie. Sweet or savory, sweet potatoes and yams are both ingredients worth trying out. I often make a large batch of this roasted sweet potato recipe to use for meal prep throughout the week.

Spicy roast sweet potatoes

  • 3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 tsp each cumin, cayenne powder, garlic powder, cinnamon, and oregano
  • 2 tsp each salt and pepper
  • 2 Tbsp oil
  • 1-14 oz can black beans, rinsed

Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a large bowl mix sweet potatoes, peppers, onions, spices, and oil until all are well coated. Pour onto a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 20-30 minutes, stirring halfway or until potatoes are tender. Stir in black beans while the baking sheet and potatoes are still warm.

I use these potatoes in a number of ways, they are an excellent salad topper, taco, or enchilada filling.  I often use them in a rice bowl with some grilled chicken, avocado, and fresh mango.

CEED would like to thank RD-MPH student Anastassia Skarlinski for her excellent series on Winter Vegetables and Dining on a Dime. Few people realize how challenging eating healthfully can be to students and people on a budget. Likewise, many of us grocery shop on remote control (especially during the winter), (im)patiently waiting for summer fruits and vegetables to reappear. This series has opened our eyes to nutritious winter options that don’t break the bank. We are grateful for her helpful and novel contributions to Exchanges.

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