By: Eddie Ayers, County Extension Agent
As the holidays draw near, we begin planning what to serve at special dinners. For those of us who are
middle-aged and raised in the South, some of our most precious holiday memories center on food and
good smells coming from the kitchen. One question comes up every year, “what is the difference
between a sweet potato and a yam?” Sweet potatoes were and still are dependable crops that can be
stored and used throughout the winter. For some folks, the smell of baked sweet potatoes, luscious pies
(baked or fried) and candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, remind us of the importance of
family and holiday traditions.
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), a New World crop from tropical America, were around in prehistoric
times. Yams (Dioscorea alata L.) are from West Africa and have been cultivated for about 50,000 years.
The African word nyami, referring to the starchy, edible root of the Dioscorea plants, was adopted in its
English form, yam. What many in the United States call yams are actually sweet potatoes. Although the
terms are generally used interchangeably, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that the
label "yam" always be accompanied by “sweet potato”, however there is a difference between the two.
Yams are rough, scaly tubers with white-flesh that is dry and tastes very starchy. They must be boiled
first to remove alkaloids before you cook them. Sweet potatoes are smooth-skinned, moist and sweeter
tasting. They have one of the highest Vitamin A contents of any food and can be prepared a variety of
ways, but not all sweet potatoes are the same. There are several types of sweet potatoes. One type is
white-fleshed, somewhat drier tasting and preferred by some over the moist, yellow-fleshed ones. The
Jersey type is also yellow-fleshed, but is drier tasting than the normal moist yellow-fleshed sweet
potato. The Southern type is moist-fleshed, syrupy and sugary.
The amount of sugar in sweet potatoes varies with cultivars, however most of the current varieties are
quite sweet and are an excellent, concentrated source of vitamins and minerals. Sweet potatoes can be
boiled, fried, made into chips or candied, but to most of us sweet potato fans, baked is still best. You can
put sweet potatoes in a cold oven, turn it to 425 degrees for an hour or so, depending on the size of the
roots, and enjoy!
During the holidays I hope you will have the opportunity to enjoy some sweet potatoes or yams! And at
this time, I would like to give thanks for the many blessings I’ve received since I moved to North
Georgia 18 years ago. I work for an outstanding organization and with two great staffs, one in Gilmer
County and one in Fannin County. I know it’s a little early, but Happy Thanksgiving!
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