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What Are Yams?
Published Jul 23, 2022 IN Column, YOU & YOUR HEALTH,
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By Rosemary Nwaebuni

What Are Yams?


YAMS are also a tuber vegetable.

Their scientific name is Dioscorea, and they originate in Africa and Asia. They are now commonly found in the Caribbean and Latin America as well. Over 600 varieties of yams are known, and 95% of these are still grown in Africa.

Compared to sweet potatoes, yams can grow very large. Size can vary from that of a small potato to up to 5 feet (1.5 meters). Not to mention, they can weigh up to an impressive 132 pounds (60 kgs) (2Trusted Source).

Yams have some distinct characteristics that help distinguish them from sweet potatoes, mainly their size and skin.

They are cylindrical in shape with brown, rough, bark-like skin that is difficult to peel, but it softens after heating. The flesh color varies from white or yellow to purple or pink in mature yams.

Yams have a unique taste, too. Compared to sweet potatoes, yams are less sweet and much more starchy and dry.

They also tend to have a good shelf life. However, certain varieties store better than others.

In the US, true yams can be tough to find. They are imported and rarely found in local grocery stores. Your best chances of finding them are in international or ethnic food stores.


True yams are an edible tuber originating in Africa and Asia. There are over 600 varieties, which vary widely in size. They are starchier and drier than sweet potatoes and rarely found in local grocery stores.


Why Do People Confuse Them?


So much confusion surrounds the terms sweet potatoes and yams.

Both names are used interchangeably and often mislabeled in supermarkets.

Yet, they are completely different vegetables.

A few reasons can explain how this mix-up happened.

Enslaved Africans brought to the US called the local sweet potato “nyami,” which translates to “yam” in English. This is because it reminded them of true yams, a food staple they knew in Africa.

In addition, the darker-skinned, orange-fleshed sweet potato variety was only introduced to the US several decades ago. In order to set it apart from paler-skinned sweet potatoes, producers labeled them “yams.”

The term “yam” is now more of a marketing term for producers to distinguish between the two types of sweet potatoes.

Most vegetables labeled as a “yam” in US supermarkets are actually just a variety of sweet potato.


Confusion between sweet potatoes and yams arose when US producers began using the African term “nyami,” which translates to “yam,” to distinguish between different varieties of sweet potatoes.


They Are Prepared And Eaten Differently


Both sweet potatoes and yams are very versatile. They can be prepared by boiling, steaming, roasting or frying.

The sweet potato is more commonly found in US supermarkets, so as you’d expect, it is used in a wider range of traditional Western dishes, both sweet and savory.

It is most often baked, mashed or roasted. It is commonly used to make sweet potato fries, an alternative to baked or mashed potatoes. It can also be puréed and used in soups and desserts.

As a staple on the Thanksgiving table, it’s most often served as a sweet potato casserole with marshmallows or sugar or made into a sweet potato pie.

On the other hand, true yams are rarely found in Western supermarkets. However, they are a staple food in other countries, particularly those in Africa.

Their long shelf life allows them to be a steady food source during times of poor harvest (3Trusted Source).

In Africa, they are most often boiled, roasted or fried. Purple yams are more commonly found in Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines and often used in desserts.

Yams can be bought in a number of forms, including whole, powder or flour and as a supplement.

Yam flour is available in the West from grocers specializing in African products. It can be used to make a dough that is served as a side with stews or casseroles. It can also be used similarly to instant mashed potatoes.

Wild yam powder can be found in some health food and supplement stores under various names. These include wild Mexican yam, colic root or Chinese yam.


Their Nutrient Content Varies


A raw sweet potato contains water (77%), carbohydrates (20.1%), protein (1.6%), fiber (3%) and almost no fat (4).

In comparison, a raw yam contains water (70%), carbohydrates (24%), protein (1.5%), fiber (4%) and almost no fat (5).

Health Benefits Of Boiling Yam Without Peeling

The skin of yam that is normally peeled off contains proteins and vitamin B Complex. It additionally has soluble fibre that absorbs sugar within the yam. When the yam is properly cooked, you peel off the skin before consumption. When you cook your yam with the skin, it will not increase the blood sugar level




Always cook your yam with the peels. Never peel your yam before cooking.

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