Yams: The 411 On This Root Vegetable

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What are yams?

If you’ve ever been to a Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a chance you believed you were dining on yams. Or, at least that’s what your great aunt said. It’s actually very unlikely that you’ve ever eaten a yam because it’s not the same as its distant relative, the sweet potato. Though yams are very popular in African dishes, they haven’t yet made their debut in American cooking. But they do carry health benefits that should not be ignored.

Yams are usually grown in Africa or Asia, although they can be found in some supermarkets in the U.S. today, especially international shops. Nigeria is the world’s number one producer of yams, farming up to 70% of the world’s supply. Yams are thought to be one of the first vegetables cultivated for consumption in the world.


Yam Vs. Sweet Potato (and Cassava)

Believe it or not, the yam and sweet potato are two very different vegetables, although they are both grown from tuberous, flowering plants. Yams are actually from the lily family, while sweet potatoes are from the morning glory family.

Yams can have white, purple, or red flesh, and typically have brown skin. Sweet potatoes have white, yellow, orange, and red flesh, and the skin can be yellow, white, brown, purple, or red.

There are two main varieties of sweet potatoes sold in most conventional grocery stores: Firm or soft sweet potatoes. Firm sweet potatoes stay hard after cooking, while soft sweet potatoes become soft and mashable.

It’s a Yam

  • White, Purple, or Red Flesh
  • Brown Skin
  • Starchy and Dry

It’s a Sweet Potato

  • Orange-ish Flesh
  • Brown or Red skin
  • Firm sweet or soft sweet after cooking


So what is sold in grocery stores?

The majority of conventional groceries do not sell yams, so why do they call them yams? The firmer sweet potatoes were the first to be produced and sold in the U.S., so when the softer variety came on the scene, they needed to differentiate its name. They began calling the softer variety yams, although they were of course just another variety of sweet potatoes. Therefore, most Americans are used to buying the faux yams and using them for mashed “yams,” in Thanksgiving meals and for baked yams.

So, you’re most likely to find simply two varieties of sweet potatoes in U.S. grocery stores. If you want real yams, you may need to go to a speciality store like an Asian foods store.


How to Cook Yams and Use Them in Recipes

Yams must be peeled of their skin before cooking because it rupture if you don’t peel them first. They also should be washed and allowed to fully dry before cooking. Because of their high starch content, yams should always be cooked before eaten. They should also be coated in oil to prevent sticking to the pan or dish while cooking.

Here we offer 3 easy, yet yummy, and healthy ways to cook real yams for your next dinner. Why not to try something typical, yet different?


1. Healthy Yam Chips


  • 2 yams
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of cinnamon


Preheat oven to 425 degrees, peel yams, and slice yams to ¼ inch thickness. Place yams in a greased glass rectangle cooking dish or cookie sheet. Cover with oil and cinnamon, and toss lightly. Cook for 30-45 minutes, testing once if they are crispy and ready to eat. Allow to fully cool before enjoying.


2. Grilled Yams


  • 2 yams
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • Dash of salt and pepper if desired


These are made much like grilled sweet corn! Preheat your own or grill, and peel yams. Slice yams lengthwise in half inch thick sections. Cover each slice in tin foil, and brush with olive oil and spices if desired. Place each piece of tin foil on the grill turning every few minutes. Remove from grill when soft, allow to cool, and enjoy!


3. Baked Yams


  • 2 yams
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • Dash of salt and pepper if desired


Preheat oven to 400 degrees, peel yams, and dice yams into 1 inch thick cubes. Place yams in a greased glass rectangle cooking dish or cookie sheet. Lightly drizzle olive oil, and spices if desired, and toss lightly. Bake for 60 minutes, and test with a fork to see if yams are fully cooked. Remove from oven, and allow to fully cool before serving.


Wild Yam for Fertility

The root of wild yam is used to increase fertility and progesterone, and to aid in menstrual symptoms. It can be cooked, dried, or blended into a tea to be applied for these uses.


Yam’s Health Benefits

  1. Rich in vitamins and minerals, yams are loaded with Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin B-6, manganese, potassium, and fiber. Vitamin C is an important vitamin to aid the immune system. It also helps in cell repair, infection and wound healing, and building strong bones. The high concentration of B-6 helps to limit homocysteine in the body which can cause stroke and heart disease. Numerous minerals help the body function and bones stay strong, such as potassium, copper, manganese, iron, calcium, and phosphorous.
  2. Starchy, yet low glycemic. Though yams are starchy, they are high in fiber and thus are a low glycemic food. White potatoes are a high glycemic food, so yams allow for people concerned with blood sugars to still enjoy the starchy taste of french fries or mashed “potatoes.”
  3. Natural healer. Eastern medicine uses yams to apply as poultices to wounds to speed healing, and used internally for respiratory illness and digestive issues. Although it was not known centuries ago how yams healed, we now know they contain a substance called allantoin which causes healing to quicken. Allantoin is used today in several cosmetics to moisture skin.
  4. Aid in menopausal symptoms. Wild yam has also been fabled to help menopausal symptoms and correct low progesterone in women. It can be taken as a capsule supplement, or in cream form. This is likely thanks to the saponins in yams which has a positive impact on hormonal balance.

In one cup of yam, you can find:

  • 177 Calories
  • 3 grams of Fat
  • 14 mg of Sodium
  • 1,224 mg of Potassium
  • 42 g of Total Carbohydrate
  • 6 g of Dietary Fiber
  • .8 g of Sugar
  • 3 g of Protein
  • 4% DV of Vitamin A
  • 42% DV of Vitamin C
  • 20% DV of Vitamin B-6
  • 7% DV of Magnesium


Yam’s Drawbacks

Sweet potatoes are higher in Vitamin A (proved by their orange and red color), so you’ll be missing out on that if you solely consume yams. However, sweet potatoes have a much higher glycemic index and those with blood sugar issues should not consume them —  it makes yams a great alternative. It goes without saying that yams are also a little less sweet which is a drawback if you’re looking for a sugary taste in your recipe.

Yams are worth the work to find the real deal in a nonconventional grocery store, thanks to their long history of healing and high amounts of important vitamins and minerals.