- Baking Alternative
- Bubble Tea
Tapioca is a versatile cooking product derived from the root of a plant. It comes in many forms, including dehydrated powders and pearls.
Dehydrated tapioca has a long shelf life. It swells into a pale, translucent jelly when rehydrated and cooked. Tapioca is safe to eat — it’s even gluten-free. But remember that it isn’t very nutritious.
Where does tapioca come from?
Tapioca comes from a plant called cassava. It’s a preparation of the starches in the large root of the cassava plant.
The scientific name for cassava is Manihot esculenta. Products made from this plant are a staple food source for a large part of the human population. It’s a significant source of sun-derived calories, mainly in the form of carbohydrates. But the leaves can also be a useful source of nutrients when they’re properly cooked.
The plant is commonly grown and used in:
- South America
Cassava extracts have applications outside of the food industry. They’re also used in some manufacturing processes, like making paper and glue.
How is tapioca made?
Tapioca can come in a number of different forms, but they all start out as a preparation of the cassava root. Applying heat ruptures cassava’s starch grains and creates irregular tapioca masses.
These can be baked with even more heat to create flaked tapioca. From here, you can choose to process your tapioca in different ways.
You can grind it to a variety of sizes to produce granulated tapioca. This product is sometimes referred to as manioc or manioca.
You can also turn it into a pellet form. Pearl tapioca — the kind used in a popular drink called bubble tea — is made by forcing hydrated tapioca through sieves with holes of various sizes.
What are the nutrients in tapioca?
One major problem with tapioca is that it’s low in proteins and most micronutrients. Tapioca is mainly only a source of starchy carbohydrates.
A measure o 100 grams of dried tapioca pearls contains 358 kilocalories of energy. Example ingredients in tapioca pearls and their approximate amounts in 100 grams of dried tapioca are:
- 88.7 grams of carbohydrates
- 3.35 grams of sugar
- 0.19 grams of protein
- 0.02 grams of fat
- 0.9 grams of fiber
- 20 milligrams of calcium
- 1.58 milligrams of iron
- 1 milligram of magnesium
Overall, this means that tapioca is more filling than it is nutritious.
Luckily, some types of dried tapioca can come fortified with soybean flour. This increases the nutritional content without significantly altering the useful qualities of dried tapioca, like its long shelf life.
Fortified tapioca contains significantly higher levels of protein and micronutrients like calcium, iron, and magnesium.
Are all types of tapioca safe for your health?
There are some health concerns that you should keep in mind before you consume tapioca products.
Cassava contains metabolites called cyanogens. One of these cyanogens is cyanide, a molecule that’s poisonous to humans. This means cassava products must be properly processed before they’re safe for human consumption.
Most of the time tapioca is completely safe to eat. All of the products that you find in the U.S. should be regulated and properly processed. But improperly processed tapioca can lead to severe health issues when eaten, particularly in large quantities. There are even reports of people in Africa dying from eating improperly processed tapioca.
The most common health concern for people in the U.S. is a possible allergic reaction to eating tapioca and other cassava-based products. Studies have shown that cassava is one of several foods that can cause allergic reactions in people with latex allergies.
These allergies can lead to problems like anaphylaxis, an extreme allergic reaction. They’re classified as part of a condition called latex fruit syndrome. If you have a latex allergy, then you need to be cautious of foods that contain many of the same proteins found in latex. Fresh fruit is the most common trigger, but you should also take care when consuming tapioca. You’ll be safest if you don’t eat it at all.
A final health concern regarding tapioca is only problematic if cassava products are central to your diet. Cassava-based diets that aren’t supplemented with enough protein and micronutrients can lead to malnutrition in growing children.
In addition, a little-understood neurodegenerative disease called konzo is consistently correlated with eating high amounts of processed cassava products, like tapioca. The disease is a troubling problem in sub-Saharan Africa. It causes irreversible nerve damage.
No one fully understands how konzo develops in certain populations. At present, the best data suggests that it’s caused by a problem with food toxins, exactly like those found in cassava.
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Is tapioca gluten-free?
One of the most versatile uses for tapioca is as a gluten-free alternative in baking. Gluten-free options are particularly important for people with celiac disease. If you have this condition, your immune system causes damage to your intestines when you eat gluten. It prevents you from absorbing needed nutrients.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye but not cassava or tapioca. Other sources of gluten-free food include:
You can use tapioca starch in combination with any of these other ingredients — or their derivatives — to make food that’s safe for people with celiac disease.
Can you use tapioca for baking?
Tapioca flour is a practical baking alternative. It has a slightly sweet taste and is very starchy. This means that it should rarely be used as your only source of carbohydrates in baked goods. Brown rice flour and quinoa flour are good gluten-free ingredients to mix with this starch.
You only need a little bit of tapioca to properly texture your baked goods. When used properly, tapioca can add a nice crispy texture to the outside of your baked goods while keeping the insides moist.
It also works as a great thickening agent thanks to its high starch content. You can add it to soups, sauces, and liquidy pies as a tasty gluten-free alternative to pectin and other starchy thickeners.
Is tapioca in bubble tea good for you?
Bubble tea is a popular drink that commonly includes large tapioca pearls as an add-in ingredient.
Green and black teas are generally considered good for your health. Drinking them regularly can lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and even some forms of cancer. And both of these teas are used as bases for bubble tea.
The problem with bubble tea comes in the form of non-dairy creamers and other additives that are high in calories and sugar content. A basic milk tea with tapioca pearls includes eight teaspoons of sugar — which is more than some total daily sugar recommendations for an adult.
Tapioca pearls have the most calories of all of your options for add-ins. The number of pearls typically used in a cup of bubble tea is equal to about 156 calories. Healthier add-in options include aloe vera and white pearls, which respectively have 31 and 42 calories per serving.
You don’t need to stop having bubble tea with tapioca pearls if it’s one of your favorite snacks. But you should limit your intake and keep these high sugar and caloric amounts in mind before treating yourself to a drink.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Brain Research Bulletin: "Konzo: a distinct neurological disease associated with food (cassava) cyanogenic poisoning." Britannica: "Tapioca."
Children’s National: "Tapioca Flour: A Gluten Free Flour for Baking."
Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Cassava as a food."
Food and Nutrition Bulletin: "A comparative evaluation of the macronutrient and micronutrient profiles of soybean-fortified gari and tapioca," "Chronic poisoning by hydrogen cyanide in cassava and its prevention in Africa and Latin America."
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Dietary Changes for Celiac Disease."
Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology: "Allergy to cassava: a new allergenic food with cross-reactivity to latex."
Mount Alvernia Hospital: "What’s In My Bubble Tea?"
U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Tapioca, pearl, dry."
Veterinary and Human Toxicology: "The toxic effects of cassava (manihot esculenta grantz) diets on humans: a review."
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