3 November 2022
Seven years ago I opined on the confusing name of sweet potatoes. In the grocery store they were simply labeled “yams” though they are not yams at all. Sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae. Yams are in the yam family, Dioscoreaceae. The misleading labels began with a marketing campaign.
The Louisiana [orange sweet potato] industry coined the term “yam” in 1937 as part of a national marketing campaign to differentiate its product from the drier, white-fleshed types [of sweet potatoes] being grown on the East Coast.— LSU, 23 May 2012: Sweet Potato Louisiana’s Most Popular Vegetable
But the confusing name goes back 400 years.
The mix-up between yams and sweet potatoes originated from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yams are an important part of West African food traditions. They are crucial to the regional diet with a religious significance and a cultural heritage.
As European slave traders steered their ships across the Middle Passage, they packed [African] yams, along with black-eyed peas, to feed their captives. … In the Americas, where yams were not readily available, sweet potatoes, which had traveled from Central America with Christopher Columbus, took their place. … Sweet potatoes became one of several transfer foods, a throughline allowing enslaved peoples to preserve their traditions and spiritual practices even in the face of captivity and abuse.— paraphrased from Food and Wine, 10 Oct 2022: The Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes Is Structural Racism
When I wrote about sweet potatoes in 2015, the words “sweet potato” were not on the labels in the grocery store but they’re there now, as seen in my photo at top. The Library of Congress pointed out in November 2019, “Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term ‘yam’ to be accompanied by the term ‘sweet potato.’”
Perhaps USDA will completely change the name some day. Meanwhile find out more about the African yam, our native true yam and morning glory sweet potatoes in this vintage article:
(photo by Kate St. John)
One thought on “Changing the Name?”
In college I took an anthropology course called Cultures of the South Pacific and yams (or did they call them sweet potatoes) were a very important part of trade and sort of commerce in that culture. They were put on display in what appeared to be hammock-like holders for all to see.
I never liked the taste of yams though.