AUTHORITY NUTRITION

What Is Tapioca and What Is It Good For?

Written by Adda Bjarnadottir, MS on July 14, 2016

Tapioca is a starch extracted from cassava root.

It consists of almost pure carbs and contains very little protein, fiber or nutrients.

Tapioca has become popular recently as a gluten-free alternative to wheat and other grains.

However, there's a lot of controversy about it.

Some claim it has numerous health benefits, while others say it's harmful.

This article is a detailed review of tapioca.

It contains everything you need to know.

Tapioca is a starch extracted from cassava root, a tuber native to South America.

The cassava root is relatively easy to grow and a dietary staple in several countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

Tapioca is almost pure starch and has very limited nutritional value (, ).

However, it's naturally gluten-free, so it can serve as a wheat substitute in cooking and baking for people who are on a gluten-free diet.

Tapioca is a dried product and usually sold as white flour, flakes or pearls.

Bottom Line: Tapioca is starch extracted from a tuber called cassava root. It's usually sold as flour, flakes or pearls.

Production varies by location, but always involves squeezing starchy liquid out of ground cassava root.

Once the starchy liquid is out, the water is allowed to evaporate. When all the water has evaporated, a fine tapioca powder is left behind.

Next, the powder is processed into the preferred form, such as flakes or pearls.

Pearls are the most common form. They're often used in bubble tea, puddings and desserts, as well as a thickener in cooking.

Because of the dehydration process, the flakes, sticks and pearls must be soaked or boiled before consumption.

They may double in size and become leathery, swollen and translucent.

Tapioca flour is often mistaken for cassava flour, which is ground cassava root. However, tapioca is the starchy liquid that's extracted from ground cassava root.

Bottom Line: Starchy liquid is squeezed out of ground cassava root. The water is allowed to evaporate, leaving behind the tapioca powder. This can then be made into flakes or pearls.

Tapioca is a grain- and gluten-free product that has many uses:

  • Gluten and grain-free bread: Tapioca flour can be used in bread recipes, although it's often combined with other flours.
  • Flatbread: It's often used to make flatbread in developing countries. With different toppings, it may be used as breakfast, dinner or dessert.
  • Puddings and desserts: Its pearls are used to make puddings, desserts, snacks or bubble tea.
  • Thickener: It can be used as a thickener for soups, sauces and gravies. It's cheap, has a neutral flavor and great thickening power.
  • Binding agent: It's added to burgers, nuggets and dough to improve texture and moisture content, trapping moisture in a gel-like form and preventing sogginess.

In addition to its cooking uses, the pearls have been used to starch clothes by boiling the pearls with the clothes.

Bottom Line: Tapioca can be used instead of flour in baking and cooking. It's also often used for making desserts, such as puddings and bubble tea.

Tapioca is almost pure starch, so it's almost entirely made up of carbs.

It contains only minor amounts of protein, fat and fiber.

Furthermore, it only contains minor amounts of nutrients. Most of them amount to less than 0.1% of the recommended daily amount in one serving (, ).

One ounce (28 grams) of dry tapioca pearls contains 100 calories ().

Due to its lack of protein and nutrients, tapioca is nutritionally inferior to most grains and flours ().

In fact, tapioca can be considered as "empty" calories. It provides energy with almost no essential nutrients.

Bottom Line: Tapioca is almost pure starch and contains only negligible amounts of protein and nutrients.

Tapioca doesn't have many health benefits, but it is grain- and gluten-free.

It's Suitable for Restricted Diets

Many people are allergic or intolerant to wheat, grains and gluten (, , , ).

In order to manage their symptoms, they need to follow a restricted diet.

Since tapioca is naturally free of grains and gluten, it may be a suitable replacement for wheat- or corn-based products.

For example, it can be used as flour in baking and cooking or as a thickener in soups or sauces.

However, you may want to combine it with other flours, such as almond flour or coconut flour, to increase the amount of nutrients.

It May Contain Resistant Starch

Tapioca is a natural source of resistant starch.

As the name implies, resistant starch is resistant to digestion and functions like fiber in the digestive system.

Resistant starch has been linked to a number of benefits for overall health.

It feeds the friendly bacteria in the gut, thereby reducing inflammation and the number of harmful bacteria (, , , ).

It may also lower blood sugar levels after meals, improve glucose and insulin metabolism and increase fullness (, , , , ).

These are all factors that contribute to better metabolic health.

However, given the low nutrient content, it is probably a better idea to get resistant starch from other foods instead. This includes cooked and cooled potatoes or rice, legumes and green bananas.

Bottom Line: Tapioca can replace wheat- or corn-based products. It also contains resistant starch, which is linked to a number of health benefits.

When processed properly, tapioca does not seem to have many negative health effects.

Most negative health effects come from consuming poorly processed cassava root.

Furthermore, tapioca may be unsuitable for diabetics since it's almost pure carbs.

Improperly Processed Cassava Products May Cause Poisoning

Cassava root naturally contains a toxic compound called linamarin. This is converted into hydrogen cyanide in your body and may cause cyanide poisoning.

Ingesting poorly processed cassava root is linked to cyanide poisoning, a paralytic disease called konzo and even death (, , , , ).

In fact, there have been konzo epidemics in African countries relying on a diet of insufficiently processed bitter cassava, such as during wars or droughts (, ).

However, there are a few ways to remove linamarin during processing and cooking.

Commercially produced tapioca generally does not contain harmful levels of linamarin and is safe to consume.

Cassava Allergy

There are not many documented cases of allergic reaction to cassava or tapioca.

However, people allergic to latex may experience allergic reactions due to cross-reactivity (, ).

That means that your body mistakes compounds in cassava for allergens in latex, causing an allergic reaction.

This is also known as the latex-fruit syndrome ().

Bottom Line: Improperly processed cassava root can cause poisoning, but commercially produced products are safe. Allergic reactions to tapioca are rare.

Properly processed tapioca is safe to eat and cheap to buy. In fact, it's a life-saving staple in several developing countries.

However, people who base a large part of their diet on cassava and tapioca-based products may ultimately lack protein and nutrients ().

This may cause nutrient deficiencies, malnutrition, rickets and goiters (, ).

For health purposes, experts have experimented with fortifying tapioca flour with more nutrient-dense flours, such as soybean flour ().

Bottom Line: Tapioca flour may be fortified with more nutrient-dense flours in developing countries where cassava and tapioca are staples.

Tapioca can be used in a variety of ways, including cooking and baking. However, most recipes are for sugar-sweetened desserts.

Tapioca Flour

From a cooking perspective, this is a great ingredient. It thickens quickly, has a neutral flavor and provides sauces and soups with a silky appearance.

Some even claim that it freezes and thaws better than cornstarch or flour. Therefore, it may be more suitable for baked goods intended for later use.

This flour is often mixed with other flours in recipes, both to improve its nutritional value and texture.

you can find all sorts of recipes that use tapioca flour.

Tapioca Pearls

The pearls need to be boiled before you eat them. The ratio is usually 1 part dry pearls to 8 parts water.

Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Stir constantly to keep the pearls from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

When the pearls start floating, reduce the heat to medium and let it simmer for 15–30 minutes while stirring occasionally.

Remove the pan from the heat, cover it and let it sit for another 15–30 minutes.

you can find recipes for desserts with tapioca pearls.

Bubble Tea

Cooked tapioca pearls are often used in bubble tea, a cold and sweet beverage.

Bubble tea, also known as boba tea, usually consists of brewed tea with tapioca pearls, syrup, milk and ice cubes.

Bubble tea is often made with black tapioca pearls, which are like the white pearls except with brown sugar blended into them.

Just note that bubble tea is usually loaded with added sugar and should only be consumed in moderation.

Bottom Line: Tapioca can be used in a variety of ways for cooking or baking, and it's ideal for making desserts.

Tapioca is almost pure starch and contains very few nutrients. On its own, it has no impressive health benefits or adverse effects.

However, it may sometimes be useful for people who need to avoid grains or gluten.

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

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