Think these root vegetables are interchangeable? Think again.

Ally Sorrells

Pictured recipe: Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Gremolata

Think sweet potatoes and yams are the same thing? They're actually not even related, but the confusion is quite understandable-sweet potatoes are marketed as "yams" in cans and in the fresh produce aisle of many American grocery stores. And chances are if you're following a recipe for candied yams, what you actually want to make are sweet potatoes. Here's a look at the differences in appearance, health benefits and best cooking methods for yams and sweet potatoes-so you can reach for the right root vegetable for your recipe.

Related: Are Sweet Potatoes Better Than White Potatoes?

Why Are Sweet Potatoes Called Yams?

To clear up the confusion regarding sweet potatoes versus yams, we talked to Mary-Frances Heck, Food + Wine's senior food editor and author of Sweet Potatoes. According to her, the confusion started in the 1930s, when Louisiana sweet potato growers decided to market their sweet potatoes as "yams" to distinguish them from sweet potato varieties grown in other states. This misidentification has stuck with sweet potatoes, which remain much more widely available in the United States than actual yams, which are a staple food in West Africa and the Caribbean.

Appearance

Although most people probably know what a sweet potato looks like, here is just a friendly reminder: Sweet potatoes are a tuberous root-packed with fiber, moisture and nutrients-with a reddish-brown, thin skin and a moist to medium-dry flesh that's generally orange in color (though there are other colors of sweet potato, including purple).

Photo: Getty Images

Real yams (not the knockoffs) have a very different appearance. The yam tubers-with more sugar in the form of starch in comparison to sweet potatoes-are similar in shape to a potato but have very tough skins with medium to dry flesh. And if you still aren't sure, bring it home and cut into it-if it has white, starchy flesh, you have most likely have a yam on your hands.

Nutrition

Although root veggies are often overlooked when it comes to their health benefits, both yams and sweet potatoes should be added to your diet ASAP for their killer nutrition benefits.

Pictured recipe: Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes

Aside from the benefits you'll get from their fiber, yams and sweet potatoes both have vitamins and minerals that will do wonders for your health. For example, each 1/2-cup serving of yams has 456 milligrams of potassium (about 13% of the Daily Value). Among other benefits, potassium can help keep blood pressure in a healthy range and reduce muscle cramps. (Learn more about the health benefits of potassium.). Sweet potatoes are also very healthy, with a lot of potassium plus Vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy eyes and a strong immune system.

Related: Why You Should Eat the Rainbow When It Comes to Fruit and Vegetables

Cooking Methods

Let's be honest, what we're all dying to know is how to use yams and sweet potatoes in the kitchen. Because yams are more starchy than sweet potatoes (which explains their higher carbohydrate content), they're perfect for heartier recipes. Try them boiled alongside steak or throw them in some of these veggie soups.

As far as sweet potatoes go, their naturally sweet flavor makes them super satisfying with very little adornment. Simply bake or roast sweet potatoes for a wonderful side dish or the centerpiece of a meal. These bad boys are so delicious stuffed with hummus dressing, roasted with miso (pictured below) and in pie!

Related: How to Cook Sweet Potatoes Perfectly

Pictured recipe: Miso Sweet Potatoes

Where to Buy Them

Without fail (unless they have mysteriously run out), you can find sweet potatoes in your local grocery store. And most of the time, the sweet potatoes are also marketed as yams. To find a tried-and-true yam, you can check out your local specialty stores, but you'll likely have trouble finding them in most American markets.

Bottom Line

Yams and sweet potatoes are definitely not the same thing, and it's time to figure out if your local grocery store has been misleading you all this time. As far as nutrition and usage in the kitchen goes, both root vegetables have different qualities to offer-which is exactly why we love all of our vegetables equally! So, whether you're more in the mood for an extra kick of potassium or a boost of Vitamin A, a sturdy soup veggie or a colorful mash, yams and sweet potatoes both have their place in your kitchen.

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