How Sweet It Is

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Sweetpotatoes Have you ever wondered whether those are yams or sweet potatoes on your Thanksgiving plate and just what is the difference between them?

Well, if you’re eating something moist, sweet, and just downright delicious then you’re probably feasting on a sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are root vegetables that are naturally sweet and most of the potatoes for consumption have orange-colored flesh. In the United States, all so-called “yams” are actually sweet potatoes. Most people believe that the long-skinny, red-skinned sweet potatoes are yams, but they’re actually just another cultivar of sweet potato. A true yam is a starchy edible tuber. This means that it isn’t sweet to the taste! They are different from sweet potatoes in taste, texture, and even the plant family it’s located within. Yams are more closely related to lilies and grasses than sweet potatoes. A true yam is a starchy edible root in the Dioscorea genus and is imported to America from the Caribbean. Its texture is scaly and rough and is low in beta carotene.

According to the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission “Sweet potato flesh can vary from white to orange and even purple.” The orange-fleshed variety was introduced to the United States several decades ago. In order to distinguish it from the white variety everyone was accustomed to, producers and shippers chose the English form of the African word nyami and labeled them “yams.” This certainly has caused major confusion around the dinner table. The US Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term “yam” to be accompanied by the term “sweet potato.” Even so, most people still think of sweet potatoes as yams regardless of their true identity.

Sweet potatoes are in the Impoea genus which makes them related to the Morning Glory vine. There are hundreds of types of sweet potatoes however, the most common one you will see at your local market or grocery store is the “Covington” sweet potato. This potato has rose colored skin and a super sweet orange flesh. It can be eaten whole with your favorite toppings or cut into wedges and baked as a side dish.

Sweet potatoes are also chock-full of healthy nutrients. Vitamins A and C are in large quantities in sweet potatoes. You must eat the potato with the skin on to receive over four times the daily intake of vitamin A which plays a vital role in vision, bone development, and immune function. Vitamin A is fat soluble, so be sure to eat your potato with a little fat for maximum absorption. A sweet potato can provide 35% of your daily recommended amount of vitamin C. This helps you fight infections, heal wounds, and absorb iron. Sweet potatoes are also an excellent source of manganese, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and antioxidants.

Our state ranks number one in sweet potato production in the United States averaging nearly 60% of total US supply. According to the USDA, North Carolina harvested nearly 95,000 acres of sweet potatoes in 2016, nearly 30,000 more acres than California, Louisiana and Mississippi combined. In closing, remember the next time you’re around the table feasting on a scrumptious sweet potato and thank a North Carolina farmer.

Colby Griffin is the horticulture agent for N.C. Cooperative Extension in Franklin County. If you have any questions about this article or other gardening issues, he can be reached at or 919-496-3344.