The Skinny on Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes and yams are actually two very different vegetables.

While American grocery stores use the terms interchangeably, what they are always referring to is actually a sweet potato, not a yam. Garnet Yams and Jewel Yams, for instance, aren’t yams at all — they’re sweet potatoes! Candied Yams? Nope, sweet potatoes. Confused yet?

In fact, chances are that you’ll never accidentally buy an actual yam instead of a sweet potato at your local grocery. You can find “true” yams as well as other varities of sweet potatoes in Caribbean and Asian specialty grocery stores.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

AOL Food -- again!

Head on over to AOL Food again if you would -- there's a little blurb from yours truly about the history of Sweet Potato Awareness. I've pasted it below.

It was around Thanksgiving three years ago when I first realized that there was some huge misunderstanding about sweet potatoes. I had asked my father to pick up yams at the store, for the candied yams recipe I would be making. I said "yams" at the time because, well, it's what the dish called for. When he returned and announced the purchase of sweet potatoes, those three tapered, pale-skinned tubers in the clear plastic, I reprimanded him. "We need YAMS for candied yams, Dad," I had said to him, "not sweet potatoes!"


Apparently I had to buy the yams myself if I wanted them bought at all, so I set out for a different grocery store to right my father's wrong. There in a bin was a mountain of familiar-looking tapered tubers, clearly labeled as "YAMS." I became suspicious and doubtful; was this some sort of yam scam I was unearthing? Was this something I should have learned in school? I hoped my family wasn't the only one who had fought over yams VS. sweet potatoes, but something told me we weren't alone.


Tentatively, I brought my bag of clearly-labeled yams to the check-out stands, heading straight for the one without a line. A self-check-out kiosk, that happens to clearly enunciate whatever produce you enter, for the store to hear. But what the robotic female voice said was not "yams" as I had expected, since I had taken the tubers from a bin with that name. Instead, she instructed me, "move your, SWEET POTATOES, to the belt." Right then and there, as my hands flew to my head in confusion and frustration, I knew that something needed to be done.


How many families had quarreled on the eve of Thanksgiving when they thought their candied yams would be ruined by sweet potatoes, when the recipe doesn't use yams at all? How many husbands had stood in front of the produce bin, warily reaching for what was labeled "yams" when their shopping list said "sweet potatoes," not knowing that the terms had become interchangeable? How many Americans thought they were digesting yams instead of sweet potatoes as they ate Aunt Cindy's candied yams? In our culture, yams and sweet potatoes are both the same thing: orange-fleshed, light-skinned, sweet and moist tubers with tapered ends. You say tomato, I say tomatoe -- it's the same logic.


You say yam, I say sweet potato.


As I dug deeper, it became clear that sweet potatoes needed to be appreciated year round, not just near the holiday season. Sweet potatoes -- not yams -- have twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, 42% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, four times the recommended daily allowance for beta carotene, and if eaten with the skin intact, they contain more fiber than even oatmeal. And hey, they taste good with brown sugar and marshmallows; what's not to like?


Had the USDA not stepped in to require that all products labeled "yam"
also carry the label "sweet potato," perhaps things wouldn't be as confusing as they are now. But many years ago, when the familiar bright orange sweet potato was introduced to our country, we already had many other lighter-fleshed varieties of sweet potato. To properly differentiate between the types, we began calling them yams despite the fact that actual yams are very different. Who knew this would become so confusing?


When you buy a can of candied yams, look at the label closely and you'll see the words "sweet potatoes" somewhere on it. Instead of allowing it to confuse you, consider instead that it's simply translating, as if to say, "I am not made from yams at all; I am made from sweet potatoes."

1 comment:

Laura said...

I LOVE sweet potatoes. I just had one as a side. The waitress asked if I wanted it loaded I said no thank you. I sat there eating my plain sweet potato and had to let each bite sit and melt on my tongue. It was so sweet and delicious I thought I was in heaven. I don't even do that with chocolate. I love to eat sweet potatoes plain for lunch or a snack. They are so healthy too! They are one of the super foods.