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Evidence Based

Cassava: Benefits and Dangers

Cassava is a root vegetable widely consumed in developing countries. It provides some important nutrients and resistant starch, which may have health benefits.

On the other hand, cassava can have dangerous effects, especially if it is eaten raw and in large amounts.

This article will explore the unique properties of cassava to determine if it's a healthy and safe food for you to include in your diet.

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What Is Cassava?

Cassava is a nutty-flavored, starchy root vegetable or tuber. Native to South America, it's a major source of calories and carbs for people in developing countries.

It is grown in tropical regions of the world because of its ability to withstand difficult growing conditions — in fact, it's one of the most drought-tolerant crops ().

In the United States, cassava is often called yuca and may also be referred to as manioc or Brazilian arrowroot.

The most commonly consumed part of cassava is the root, which is very versatile. It can be eaten whole, grated or ground into flour to make bread and crackers.

Additionally, cassava root is well known as the raw material that's used to produce tapioca and garri, a product similar to tapioca.

Individuals with food allergies often benefit from using cassava root in cooking and baking because it is gluten-free, grain-free and nut-free.

One important note is that cassava root must be cooked before it is eaten. Raw cassava can be poisonous, which will be discussed in a later chapter.

Summary: Cassava is a versatile root vegetable that is consumed in several parts of the world. It must be cooked before it is eaten.

Contains a Few Key Nutrients

A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of boiled cassava root contains 112 calories. 98% of these are from carbs and the rest are from a small amount of protein and fat.

This serving also provides fiber, as well as a few vitamins and minerals ().

The following nutrients are found in 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of boiled cassava ():

  • Calories: 112
  • Carbs: 27 grams
  • Fiber: 1 gram
  • Thiamine: 20% of the RDI
  • Phosphorus: 5% of the RDI
  • Calcium: 2% of the RDI
  • Riboflavin: 2% of the RDI

Boiled cassava root also contains small amounts of iron, vitamin C and niacin ().

Overall, the nutrition profile of cassava is unremarkable. While it does provide some vitamins and minerals, the amounts are minimal.

There are many other root vegetables you can eat that will provide significantly more nutrients — beets and sweet potatoes, to name two.

Summary: Cassava is a significant source of carbs and also provides a small amount of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
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Processing Cassava Reduces Its Nutritional Value

Processing cassava by peeling, chopping and cooking it significantly reduces the nutritional value ().

This is because many of the vitamins and minerals are destroyed by processing, as well as most of the fiber and resistant starch ().

Therefore, the more popular, processed forms of cassava — such as tapioca and garri — have very limited nutritional value.

For example, 1 ounce (28 grams) of tapioca pearls provides nothing but calories and a small amount of a few minerals ().

Boiling cassava root is one cooking method that has been shown to retain most nutrients, with the exception of vitamin C, which is sensitive to heat and easily leaches into water ().

Summary: While cassava contains several nutrients, processing methods significantly lower its nutritional value by destroying vitamins and minerals.

It's High in Calories

Cassava contains 112 calories per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving, which is quite high compared to other root vegetables ().

For example, the same serving of sweet potatoes provides 76 calories, and the same amount of beets provides only 44 (, ).

This is what makes cassava such an important crop for developing countries, since it is a significant source of calories ().

However, its high calorie count may do more harm than good for the general population.

Consuming high-calorie foods on a regular basis is associated with weight gain and obesity, so consume cassava in moderation and in reasonable portions (, ). An appropriate serving size is about 1/3–1/2 cup (73–113 grams).

Summary: Cassava contains a significant number of calories, so consume it in moderation and in appropriate portion sizes.
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High in Resistant Starch

Cassava is high in resistant starch, a type of starch that bypasses digestion and has properties similar to soluble fiber.

Consuming foods that are high in resistant starch may have several benefits for overall health ().

First of all, resistant starch feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut, which may help reduce inflammation and promote digestive health (, ).

Resistant starch has also been studied for its ability to contribute to better metabolic health and reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

This is due to its potential to improve blood sugar control, in addition to its role in promoting fullness and reducing appetite (, , , ).

The benefits of resistant starch are promising, but it is important to note that many processing methods may lower cassava's resistant starch content (, ).

Products made from cassava, such as flour, tend to be lower in resistant starch than cassava root that has been cooked and then cooled in its whole form (, ).

Summary: Cassava in its whole form is high in resistant starch, which is known for its role in preventing certain metabolic conditions and promoting gut health.
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Contains Antinutrients

One of cassava's major downfalls is its content of antinutrients.

Antinutrients are plant compounds that may interfere with digestion and inhibit the absorption of vitamins and minerals in the body.

These aren't a concern for most healthy people, but their effects are important to keep in mind.

They are more likely to impact populations at risk of malnutrition. Interestingly, this includes populations that rely on cassava as a staple food.

Here are the most important antinutrients found in cassava:

  • Saponins: Antioxidants that may have drawbacks, such as reduced absorption of some vitamins and minerals ().
  • Phytate: This antinutrient may interfere with the absorption of magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc (, ).
  • Tannins: Known for reducing protein's digestibility and interfering with the absorption of iron, zinc, copper and thiamine ().

The effects of antinutrients are more prominent when they are consumed frequently and as part of a nutritionally inadequate diet.

As long as you only consume cassava on occasion, the antinutrients shouldn't be a major cause for concern.

In fact, under some circumstances, antinutrients such as tannins and saponins may actually have beneficial health effects (, , ).

Summary: The antinutrients in cassava may interfere with the absorption of some vitamins and minerals and may cause digestive distress. This is mainly a concern for populations that rely on cassava as a staple food.
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May Have Dangerous Effects in Some Circumstances

Cassava may be dangerous if consumed raw, in large amounts or when it is prepared improperly.

This is because raw cassava contains chemicals called cyanogenic glycosides, which can release cyanide in the body when consumed ().

When eaten frequently, these increase the risk of cyanide poisoning, which may impair thyroid and nerve function. It is associated with paralysis and organ damage, and can be fatal (, ).

Those who have an overall poor nutrition status and low protein intake are more likely to experience these effects, since protein helps rid the body of cyanide ().

This is why cyanide poisoning from cassava is a greater concern for those who live in developing countries. Many people in these countries suffer from protein deficiencies and depend on cassava as a major source of calories ().

What's more, in some areas of the world, cassava has been shown to absorb harmful chemicals from the soil, such as arsenic and cadmium. This may increase the risk of cancer in those who depend on cassava as a staple food ().

Summary: Frequent consumption of cassava is associated with cyanide poisoning, especially if it is consumed raw and prepared improperly.

How to Make Cassava Safer for Consumption

Cassava is generally safe when it is prepared properly and eaten occasionally in moderate amounts. A reasonable serving size is about 1/3–1/2 cup.

Here are some ways you can make cassava safer for consumption (, ):

  • Peel it: The peel of cassava root contains most of the cyanide-producing compounds.
  • Soak it: Soaking cassava by submerging it in water for 48–60 hours before it is cooked and eaten may reduce the amount of harmful chemicals it contains.
  • Cook it: Since the harmful chemicals are found in raw cassava, it's essential to cook it thoroughly — by boiling, roasting or baking, for example.
  • Pair it with protein: Eating some protein along with cassava may be beneficial, since protein helps rid the body of toxic cyanide ().
  • Maintain a balanced diet: You can prevent adverse effects from cassava by including a variety of foods in your diet and not relying on it as your sole source of nutrition.

It's important to note that products made from cassava root, such as cassava flour and tapioca, contain extremely little to no cyanide-inducing compounds and are safe for human consumption.

Summary: You can make cassava safer for consumption with several strategies, including using certain preparation methods and consuming it in reasonable portions.
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How to Use Cassava

There are many ways you can incorporate cassava into your diet.

You can prepare several snacks and dishes with the root on its own. It is commonly sliced and then baked or roasted, similar to the way you would prepare a potato.

Additionally, cassava root can be mashed or mixed in with stir-fries, omelets and soups. It's also sometimes ground into flour and used in bread and crackers.

You can also enjoy it in the form of tapioca, which is a starch extracted from the cassava root through a process of washing and pulping.

Tapioca is commonly used as a thickener for puddings, pies and soups.

Summary: Cassava is typically used in the same way that you would use potatoes and makes an excellent addition to just about any dish. It can also be ground into flour or enjoyed in the form of tapioca.

The Bottom Line

Cassava contains some healthful properties, but its negative effects appear to outweigh the benefits.

Not only is it high in calories and antinutrients — it can cause cyanide poisoning when prepared improperly or consumed in large amounts.

While this is mostly a concern for those who rely on cassava as a staple food, it is still important to keep in mind.

Additionally, cassava-based products like tapioca and garri have been processed enough to remove the toxic chemicals and are not dangerous to consume.

Overall, cassava is not a food that needs to be a regular part of your diet. If you do eat it, prepare it properly and eat it in reasonable portions.

An evidence-based article from our experts at Authority Nutrition.
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