What Is Tapioca: Nutrition Facts and Benefits
Tapioca has been used in human dishes for centuries but has recently seen a surge in popularity thanks to the introduction of Taiwanese ‘bubble tea’ across the US. The use of tapioca “pearls” in jelly-like dessert dishes originated in Southeast Asia and soon spread throughout the world.
Despite its widespread use, people tend to know very little about how this starchy substance is made and what nutritional benefits it gives. Here’s a quick summary of everything you need to know about tapioca.
What is Tapioca and How is it Made?
So, what is tapioca and where does tapioca come from? Tapioca is a starch product that is obtained from the roots of the cassava plant. The cassava is a tuber plant that is found naturally in South America. It is not hard to cultivate and provides valuable nutrition for many indigenous population groups in Africa, Asia and South America.
What is tapioca made of? It is made up almost entirely of starch and therefore has limited nutritional value. However, it is gluten-free and that makes it a very useful alternative to wheat flour for people who require a gluten-free diet. It can be used for cooking and baking and when it is dried out it is sold as white flour, pearls and flakes.
To make tapioca, the starchy liquid is squeezed out of the root. This is treated so that the water content evaporates leaving behind a fine powder which is processed to form the flakes or pearls. Before tapioca can be eaten, it must be soaked or boiled to rehydrate them. This makes them get bigger and more rubbery; they also became translucent.
Tapioca flour should not be mistaken for cassava flour even though they are from the same plant. Cassava flour is produced from the cassava fruit but tapioca is from the root. It contains hardly any protein or fiber and is made up almost entirely of starch (carbohydrate).
What is Tapioca Used for?
Tapioca is a very versatile ingredient and can be used in many dishes. It has much value as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour. You will see it used in gluten-free bread and it can be combined with other flours to produce a more varied bread mixture. In some developing countries, it is used to make flatbreads and these are eaten at any time of the day and with a variety of sweet and savory toppings.
Traditionally, it has been used in the US to make puddings and desserts, especially in its pearl form. It is also used in snacks and, of course, in bubble tea.
You can use tapioca flour to thicken soups, casseroles, gravies and sauces. In fact, it makes an excellent thickener because it has such a neutral flavor and you need to use very little to get an impressive thickening effect. It also has binding qualities and therefore can be added to recipes for burgers and nuggets. It is very good at improving the texture of the dough and also traps moisture so it keeps the dough moist but not soggy. As a cheap ingredient, it is an attractive alternative to other thickening and binding agents.
Related Post: Burger Presses
Believe it or not, the pearls can even be used to starch clothes!
Nutritional Facts About Tapioca
The nutritional benefits of tapioca are not that impressive so whilst it may fill you up it is certainly not a super food! It consists of almost entirely carbohydrate and has very small quantities of protein together with a small amount of fat and fiber. You cannot rely on the tapioca nutritional value for your daily necessary intake of vitamins and minerals. In fact, it has fewer nutrients than many other flours and grains.
Obviously, as it contains carbohydrates, your body can use it to produce energy and one ounce of dry tapioca pearls will deliver 100 calories. However, these would be considered by nutritionists as empty calories because they contain none of the other essential nutrients.
Health Benefits of Eating Tapioca
Is tapioca healthy? Given the limited number of nutrients that tapioca contains, you would be forgiven for thinking that there are no health benefits associated with eating it but that is not strictly true. For people who are intolerant of gluten in their diet, it is a useful ingredient. Many find it a great alternative to products derived from wheat or corn which contain gluten.
It can be used to replace corn and wheat flour when baking and making soups and sauces. By combining it with coconut flour or almond flour you can increase the nutritional content.
There are also health benefits associated with consuming the type of starch that tapioca contains. It is called resistant starch and as the name suggests, it is resistant to the action of the human digestive tract so a lot of it just passes through. It acts in a similar way to fiber and therefore has many of the health benefits that fiber has. Friendly gut bacteria benefit from the addition of tapioca in your diet and it reduces inflammation in the gut and limits the growth of harmful bacteria.
People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or diverticulitis may find that tapioca is more gentle on their digestion than flours made from other grains.
There are also tapioca health benefits for your metabolism and it may be useful for weight loss. One of the main benefits of tapioca is that it can lower the level of sugar in the blood after you have eaten and this leads to an improvement in glucose and insulin metabolism. The tapioca benefits in terms of healthy weight management are obtained because it makes you feel full for longer so you do not crave surgery snacks. All of this results in a healthy metabolism.
Obtaining resistant starch from tapioca alone, however, is not a good idea and you should combine it with other sources such as potatoes, bananas, and rice. Populations that are reliant on tapioca often suffer from malnutrition and diseases associated with a poor diet such as rickets and goiters. Authorities often try to fortify it with more nutrient-dense flours.
Risks Associated With Eating Tapioca
Tapioca may not be suitable for diabetics as it contains such a high proportion of carbohydrates. For those who do not have any underlying medical conditions, properly processed tapioca is highly unlikely to cause you any health problems. However, there can be problems associated with eating cassava root that has not been correctly treated. It contains a substance called linamarin which is toxic because the body converts it to hydrogen cyanide. The result is cyanide poisoning!
It can also cause a disease called konzo which produces paralysis and can be fatal. There have been reports of outbreaks of konzo in some African countries where the indigenous populations eat large amounts of bitter cassava that has not been processed correctly. This is particularly likely to happen during conflict and droughts when food supplies are very low. These populations, who rely on cassava as a staple food source, are also likely to suffer from malnutrition as there are so few nutrients in this food.
You do not have to worry about the commercially produced tapioca that you buy from your store because this will have been processed correctly and will not contain toxic levels of linamarin. It is also very unusual for cassava or tapioca to trigger allergies. There can be a problem with cross-reactivity and individuals who are allergic to latex may experience an allergic reaction when they eat tapioca or products containing tapioca. The body mistakes the compounds in cassava for latex allergens and this is often referred to as latex-fruit syndrome.
Methods of Cooking Tapioca
Tapioca is commercially produced as either flour or pearls. Tapioca flour has a neutral flavor and thickens sauces and soups but maintains a silky texture and appearance. Some cooks think that it freezes better than products containing other flours so bear this in mind if you are batch baking for the freezer. If you are worried about nutritional value, mix it with other flours.
Tapioca pearls have to be boiled in a liquid before they can be eaten. Use a ratio of around one part dry pearls to eight parts liquid (usually water). Use high heat to bring the mixture to the boil and watch to see the pearls start to float. When this happens, turn down the heat and simmer for around 30 minutes but stir it occasionally so that the pearls do not stick. Finally, turn off the heat, cover the pan and let the tapioca stand in the water for another 15–30 minutes.
Related Post: Iced Tea Makers
The Last Word…
Tapioca is produced from the root of the cassava plant and consists almost entirely of carbohydrates. It delivers very few nutrients but is useful for those who need a lot of calories or who cannot tolerate flours made from other grains. The most fun way to consume it is in bubble tea!