Selling sweet potatoes as yams is illegal

I didn’t realize this until recently, but apparently if a company or store labels sweet potatoes as “yams,” they can get in trouble with the United States Department of Agriculture, which views sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and yams (Dioscorea spp.) as distinct commodities. So if you feel a product label (or bin label at the store) gets the identification wrong, just snap a photograph and email to the USDA’s Misbranding and Misrepresentation Office. The responding officer then gets in touch with the company or store and ask the labels be updated. Of course, it’s probably often true that labels are just inadvertently misleading, such as in stores where produce managers don’t know what a yam is — the USDA would never fine those individuals, I suspect. If enough people reported these instances, the confusion over yams and sweet potatoes would drop, and fast. Less confusion is always a good goal, but this getting ridding of the “yam” slang would be extra good because it makes life a tad safer for those with sweet potato allergies (they might eat one if it is labelled “yam”).

giant-sweet-potato-05 (1)The product above has sweet potatoes, by the way. They are not yams. If you shop at Giant Foods, make a habit of looking at the labels on their sweet potatoes … might be changes coming soon.

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Sweet potato flesh can reduce yam confusion

So I have a silly, futile goal of reducing the confusion over sweet potatoes and yams in the United States. If you are a grocery store manager and are on board with this silly, futile goal, please consider displaying the flesh inside the different sweet potato varieties you sell. Doing that will reduce reliance on the strange habit of calling orange-fleshed sweet potatoes “yams.” You can easily show the insides of your sweet potatoes by chopping one in half and wrapping the cut end in plastic wrap, then placing back into the display shelf — you can even use a Sharpie to write stuff on the plastic (I’ve never seen this done … but I’m sure it would work). Or you can make signage that has a photograph of flesh. If you also add some thoughts on how to use them in cooking, even better. Below are two examples of ‘Nancy Hall’ and ‘Beauregard’ sweet potatoes that I cooked over the weekend.

Labels for sweet potatoesNote that the word “yam” does not appear on the sign. If you are the type that says, “What?? You idiot. That sure looks like a yam to me!” … please have look over my “Yams versus sweet potatoes” page. It probably won’t change your opinion, but you’ll at least know what a yam looks like.

On a side note, my ‘Nancy Hall’ sweet potatoes turned out great. I partially cooked them in the oven (coat with bacon fat first) and then sauteed the diced flesh with butter and hickory bark syrup. I used the ‘Beauregard’ to make biscuits. It turns out that biscuits are good with Chessmen cookie butter. Just saying.

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Letter to customers about yams and sweet potatoes

If you are the produce czar or czarina at a grocery store, here’s a sign you can print out that will reduce shoppers’ confusion over yams and sweet potatoes. Come on, do your part! More at “Yams versus sweet potatoes“.

Sign for informing customers that sweet potatoes will no longer be sold as yamsAnd, ideally, couple the announcement with new signage for your sweet potato bins. Something that shows off the flesh (the sweet potato flesh, that is).

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Sweet potato latex

Here’s a fun trick for Thanksgiving. If you get into an argument about whether you purchased yams or sweet potatoes at the store, chop one in half before cooking and look for milky white sap bleeding off the flesh. Only sweet potatoes do that. But if you don’t see sap, that might mean you just have an old sweet potato, so don’t place large bets when doing this. More useless trivia at “Yams versus sweet potatoes“.

close-up photograph of cut sweet potato exuding white latex sap

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