Sorry, You’ve Never Eaten a Yam

You’ve been lied too. See, the yams found in grocery stores are anything but. They’re just sweet potatoes. While yams and sweet potatoes are both angiosperms (flowering plants), they are not at all related botanically. Yes, both are tubers, meaning they grow underground as a modification of the plant’s root, but they are hardly the same.

I learned about this and much more during a virtual agriculture tour provided by California Grown.

Jason Tucker, sweet potato farmer. Photo credit: Alycia Moreno for CA Grown.

For those of you who fancy conspiracy theories, the reasoning behind mislabeled potatoes is far less delicious than the sweet-tasting, tuberous roots themselves. There’s no deep state at work here. In short, it comes down to branding.

What is a Yam?

Without getting too technical, yams are related grass. Native to Africa and Asia, they vary in size from small-potato-sized tubers to a record-breaking 130-pound one grown in 1999. Not that you would want to eat that one.

Also, now I have that Prince song stuck in my head.

There are over 600 varieties of yams, and around 95% are grown in Africa. Compared to sweet potatoes, yams are starchier and drier. You may find yams at your farmer’s market, but any commercially grown ones are guaranteed to be imported.

What is a Sweet Potato?

Sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family. They come in a variety of colors. Seriously, these things are pretty much Skittles. The skin color ranges from white, yellow, red, purple, or brown. The flesh comes in white, yellow, orange, or orange-ish red.  

Medieval gay pride flags were dyed using sweet potatoes. Also, that is a complete lie.

Photo credit: Alycia Moreno for CA Grown

While consumers usually divide up sweet potatoes based on their color, they are often grouped as firm or soft. I will avoid the obligatory Viagra joke here. Firm sweet potatoes remain firm even after cooking, whereas the soft varieties become soft and moist. And my apologies for using the word moist.

More often than not, these softer potatoes get labeled as yams in the United States.

Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams – What’s the Difference?

Well, as you can see…a lot! But here’s a video for those of you who hate to read.

Why are Sweet Potatoes Called Yams?

So how did we get here? How did something mostly grown in Africa end up with its name on sweet potatoes? Well, that answer depends on who you are talking to.

Here in the U.S., firm sweet potatoes came first. As our palettes have evolved over time, new varietals were introduced. This is quite common among produce. Farmers adjust to consumer’s desires just like the fashion industry does (i.e. bell bottoms and skinny jeans).

For example, beets were originally grown for their greens. Now we primarily eat the roots. Persimmons were a rare find decades ago and few knew the differences between a fuyu and a hachiya. To this day, the latter still sounds like a sneeze to me. Today there are jiro, cinnamon, and chocolate persimmons to name a few.

We’ve seen this happen to apples, grapes (especially with wine), and many other fruits and veggies. BTW, California leads the nation in production of table grapes, growing over 99% of fresh grapes in the U.S., and over 80% of domestically produced wine. Remember to thank a California farmer for your next drunk dial!

Investing in new varietals and produce is a huge risk for farmers. It can be years before they see a profit on any new crops. Unlike skinny jeans, fruits and veggies spoil.

Photo credit: Alycia Moreno for CA Grown

When the softer sweet potatoes were introduced, they were labeled as yams. Why? One theory is that African slaves had already made this distinction. Yams, grown in Africa, resembled these softer varieties and the word “yam” was derived from the Senegalese term “nyami.” Another theory credits the Louisiana State University Horticulture Department. They chose to call them yams in an effort to distinguish Louisiana sweet potatoes from those grown in other parts of the country.

They were rumored to be sweeter and moister. Clearly LSU employees never had a California grown sweet potato! According to LSU, they also appropriated this name from African slaves.

However the usage came to be, it’s still wrong.

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires anything labeled with the word “yam” to also use the term “sweet potato.” However, this doesn’t stop grocery stores from going rogue. I have seen my share of “yams” in the produce aisle. It takes all the will power I have in me to not go full-blown Karen and ask to speak to the manager.

Eat California Grown Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are a superfood. They’re high in nutrients and low in calories. Add in tasty AF and what other reasons do you need to enjoy some today?

Okay, here are a few more. They are fat-free and cholesterol-free, plus packed with fiber. But why eat those California grown ones?

Well, the climate here is baller. Not just for humans but for sweet potatoes too. It lends itself to lush, fast-growing vines, and a hella long growing season. This allows for a year-around supply!

California sweet potatoes are also cured right in the soil, rather than after harvest in some storage shed. Vine-curing is chemical-free and increases their shelf life. That’s a great thing for fighting food waste. It’s also a lot easier on your wallet if you’re not tossing out spoiled food as often.

Along with sweet potatoes, the Golden State grows more than 400 different commodities, more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.

No state grows more food than California. That’s pretty sweet, if you ask me.

Jason Tucker, sweet potato farmer. Photo credit: Alycia Moreno for CA Grown.