At my recent Thanksgiving meal at my folks place in Burleson, Texas, we got into a discussion on the difference between yams and sweet potatoes.

Is there a difference? Indeed there is!  Our confusion between the two is because of labeling.

Sweet potato skin is beige, orange and sometimes purple in color, and has light yellow to orange to purple colored flesh. Sweet potatoes can be found in many local grocery stores.

First cultivated by Native Americans, sweet potatoes are part of the Morning Glory family. Sweet potatoes are more nutritious than yams and contain fewer calories. Sweet potatoes contain beta-carotene, calcium, potassium and vitamins A and C.

Yams are part of the Lily family. Lily family means they are actually a perennial plant that dies in the fall and winter and then comes back in the spring. Yams are native to Africa and Asia. Yams are not as nutritious as sweet potatoes. They can weigh up to 100 pounds and are very starchy.

Yams have very dark skin and the flesh of a yam can range from white, to red, to purple colored flesh. If you are looking for a yam you may have to go to an international grocery store to purchase it.

The versatile sweet potato is ideal fare for the health – conscious food consumer. With the ever-growing interest in health and natural foods, the sweet potato is quickly finding its place in the family weekly diet the year around. The sweet potato blends with herbs, spices and flavorings producing delicious dishes of all types. From processed baby foods to the main dishes, casseroles, salads, breads and desserts, sweet potatoes add valuable, appetizing nutrients and color to any meal.

As a main dish or prepared as a dessert, the sweet potato is a nutritious and economical food. One baked sweet potato (3 1/2 ounce serving) provides over 8,800 IU of vitamin A or about twice the recommended daily allowance, yet it contains only 141 calories making it valuable for the weight watcher. This nutritious vegetable provides 42 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance for vitamin C, 6 percent for calcium, 10 percent for iron, and 8 percent for thiamine for healthy adults.

It is low in sodium and is a good source of fiber and other important vitamins and minerals. A complex carbohydrate food source, it provides beta carotene which may be a factor in reducing the risk of certain cancers.

For the most food value, choose sweet potatoes of a deep orange color.

When buying sweet potatoes, select sound, firm roots. Handle them carefully to prevent bruising. Storage in a dry, unrefrigerated bin kept at 55-60 degrees F. is best. DO NOT REFRIGERATE, because temperatures below 55 degrees F. will chill this tropical vegetable giving it a hard core and an undesirable taste when cooked.

The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is one of the classic Southern vegetables that can be grown in the home garden with ease. Even George Washington grew them! They do prefer good sandy soil but are able to adapt to many different soil types in the garden. There are many varieties to choose from.

When it is time to harvest, do so before the soil temperature drops to less than 50°F to prevent frost blackening. The vines may be frosted partially with the first few cold snaps. At this time, cut these back and dig the sweet potatoes, preferably while soil is dry. Take care not to bruise or cut the tubers.

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Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu


Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.