Is a sweet potato really a potato? What’s the difference between a sweet potato and a yam? These are important questions as we enter the Thanksgiving season. Most if not all of us will be eating sweet potatoes. You may think that it is just another type of potato; however, this is one of the biggest misconceptions about the sweet potato. The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas (L.), is actually in the Convolvulaceae (Morning Glory) family, while the potato is in the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family.
The true sweet potato plant, it is an herbaceous, perennial vine, which means that it lives for more than two years. It has alternate heart-shaped leaves and fused petal flowers. All of this grows above ground, while the edible tuberous root that we consume remains underground. They are particularly easy to cultivate because pesticides are rarely needed and they are sown by their vine cuttings instead of seeds. Another interesting fact about sweet potatoes that is lesser known is that not all of them are orange! The smooth skin can be red, purple, brown, or white, while the fleshy inside can be white, yellow, orange, or purple!
These variously colored potatoes grow best where the summers are long and hot with plenty of rain, specifically in the tropical regions of the Americas where they are native to. It isn’t clear who cultivated them first; however it is known that the sweet potato has been cultivated for 1000s of years by the Incan and pre-Incan people. In 1492, Christopher Columbus brought the sweet potato back to Europe where it spread before coming to North America. Today, China is the largest producer of the sweet potato with 80% of the world’s supply and 100 varieties. In the US, North Carolina produces 40% of the annual US supply.
With regard to the common name of the sweet potato, the Taino Indians of the West Indies first called it batata. Then, it was called patata by the Spanish, which translated to potato in English. This word originally referred to the sweet potato, but then was later applied to the “regular” potato we know today, even though they are in different families of plants. Another common misconception about sweet potatoes in the United States is that they are often called yams instead of sweet potatoes. This is actually the incorrect term even though a lot of the sweet potato products are mislabeled as yams. The difference is that yams have darker and rougher skins with whiter and drier flesh. Yams are native to Africa and Asia, with the majority of the crop coming from Africa, and are also not potatoes. They are in a different family, the Dioscoreaceae, than both the potato and sweet potato.
Yam or sweet potato, the name you use doesn’t matter as long as you know what you are actually eating. If it’s the sweet potato, you can enjoy it in various forms. There are sweet potato fries, sweet potato chips, mashed sweet potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, sweet potato casserole, sweet potato pie, and even the new trend of sweet potato as toast. Savory or sweet, the sweet potato can be used in various types of culinary items, and I’m not complaining.
Not only is this plant delicious, but it also provides a lot of valuable vitamins and minerals. It contains vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin D, and iron. It supports a healthy immune system and contains magnesium and potassium, which helps regulate heartbeat and nerve signals. Instead of the artificial sugars now central to our cuisine, the sweet potato provides us with natural sugars, which won’t cause a spike in our blood sugars like the artificial sugars do. The sweet potato is also high in carotenoids, which aid our eyesight, and powerful antioxidants, which aid in the body’s defense against cancer. Next time you are in the grocery store buying fruits and vegetables, don’t forget to grab some sweet potatoes as a great addition to any meal!