Comparing Beets, Sweet Potatoes and Yams


Beet leaves, aka Swiss Chard Picture by Forest & Kim Starr

While these are all root crops, these are all different plants. However, there can be some confusion about them, especially since the common name in one English-speaking country might not be the same as in another. For example, in the United States, ‘beets’ are usually a reference to the large, globular and usually deep red root that are often called ‘beetroot’ in the UK. It might be worthwhile to look at all three, noting how they are similar and how they differ.

Beets (Beta vulgaris)


Red beet (Beta vulgaris) picture by Dag Terje Filip Endresen

Beets or beetroots are vegetables that have a large, bulb-shaped root. The root is normally shaped like the root of a radish or turnip, but the most commonly used cultivar is colored deep red, all the way through. There are cultivars that range from golden to purple and black in color, but these aren’t nearly as popular as the ones that are dark crimson. Beets are naturally high in sugar.

It should be noted that one kind of beet is called the sugar-beet. While this is the same species, sugar beets have been specifically been bred to produce a root that is very high in sugar. Sugar beets aren’t commonly grown as food, but the roots are refined and refined sugar is made from them. Much of the refined sugar sold in many countries comes from sugar beets or a blend of sugar beet sugar and sugar cane sugar. The color of sugar beets usually isn’t the deep red of beetroot that is consumed as food and they are often brown or yellow.

The leaves of beetroot are quite edible and delicious, as well as being nutritious. The leaves look quite similar to spinach, though they are nutritionally superior to spinach. The top picture shows the leaves. They often also have a red mid-vein and are commonly sold and grown as Swiss chard. Swiss chard and beetroot is one and the same plant, Beta vulgaris, though they can be different cultivars.

Beets have been used for some time, medicinally. They are particularly good for individuals who have high blood pressure.

Counting sugar beets, the US produces well over 30 million tons of beets each year. France and Russia both grow more and Germany grows nearly as many. Originally, beets were grown for the greens and the roots weren’t eaten. The plants are believed to have originated in Europe and were grown in ancient Babylon as well.

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas)

sweet potato

Sweet potato – picture by Llez

Sweet potatoes are not related to potatoes, which are in the Nightshade family. However, sweet potatoes are a type of morning glory. This can easily be seen when the plants bloom.

There are several cultivars of sweet potatoes, so the color can vary from white, yellow, orange, pink, reddish and even violet. Those cultivars that are light in color tend not to be as sweet as those with darker flesh, so those that are most commonly eaten are the ones that are deep orange.

Sweet potatoes have been cultivated for a very long time; at least 10,000 years in Peru, where it originated. The plant is decidedly tropical and cannot survive heavy frosts. About a million tons of sweet potatoes are grown in the US every year, primarily in the southeastern states. China grows far more sweet potatoes, though, producing about 82 million tons a year.

The leaves of sweet potatoes aren’t eaten. Also, when the tubers are harvested, they are normally seasoned at high temperature and humidity, usually for a couple of weeks. Once aged in this way, sweet potatoes can be stored for over a year. The seasoning allows starch in the tuber to convert to sugar, to make them sweeter.

In the Philippines, sweet potatoes are called camote.

Yams (Dioscorea genus)



Yams originated in Africa and they are totally unrelated to sweet potatoes, though they are often called sweet potatoes in the US. This plant grows long vines, which aren’t eaten. Again, it is the tuber that is consumed. The tubers contain very little sugar and are much starchier than sweet potatoes. Yams have very low nutritional value when compared to sweet potatoes.

The tubers have rough skin and the form is long and slender. The tubers can grow to nearly five feet in length, though. Yams are usually brown in color and the interior varies from brown the almost beige.

Nigeria easily produces more yams than any other country, growing about 38 million tons per year. They aren’t as popular in the US as sweet potatoes and most of the yams sold in American stores come from either Papua New Guinea or Colombia.

This should give a person a better idea of what each of these is and how they differ from one another. Beets, sweet potatoes and yams are all plants that are unrelated to each other, though commonly grown and eaten.




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