Tapioca is a starch extracted from cassava root. It consists of almost pure carbs and contains very little protein, fiber, or other nutrients.

Tapioca has recently become popular 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 tells you everything you need to know about tapioca.

What is tapioca?

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 (1, 2).

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.

Summary

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

How is it made?

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 and as a thickener in cooking.

Because they’re dehydrated, 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.

Summary

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

What is it used for?

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 eaten 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 and 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 their use in cooking, the pearls have been used to starch clothing by being boiled with the clothes.

Summary

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.

Nutritional value

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 contains minor amounts of other nutrients. Most of them amount to less than 0.1% of the recommended daily amount in one serving (1, 3).

One cup of dry tapioca pearls contains 544 calories (3).

Due to its lack of protein and nutrients, tapioca is nutritionally inferior to most grains and flours (1).

In fact, tapioca can be considered a source of “empty” calories, since it provides energy but almost no essential nutrients.

Summary

Tapioca is almost pure starch and contains only negligible amounts of protein and other nutrients.

Health benefits of tapioca

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 (4, 5, 6, 7).

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.

What about resistant starch?

Resistant starch has been linked to a number of benefits for overall health. It feeds the friendly bacteria in your gut, thereby reducing inflammation and the number of harmful bacteria (8, 9, 10).

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 (11, 12, 13, 14, 15).

Cassava root is a source of natural resistant starch. However, tapioca, a product obtained from cassava root, has a low content of natural resistant starch, likely because of processing (16, 17).

Research is lacking on the health benefits of chemically modified resistant starches versus natural resistant starches.

In addition, given the low nutrient content, it’s probably a better idea to get resistant starch from other foods instead, such as cooked and cooled potatoes or rice, legumes, and green bananas.

Summary

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

Negative health effects

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 people with diabetes 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 (1, 18, 19, 20).

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 (21, 22).

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

Commercially produced tapioca generally doesn’t 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 who are allergic to latex may experience allergic reactions due to cross-reactivity (23, 24).

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

This is also known as the latex-fruit syndrome (25).

Summary

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

Fortification for health purposes

Properly processed tapioca is safe to eat and cheap to buy. In fact, it’s a lifesaving 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 (26).

This may cause nutrient deficiencies, malnutrition, rickets, and goiters (26, 27).

For health purposes, experts have experimented with fortifying tapioca flour with more nutrient-dense flours, such as soybean flour (1).

Summary

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

How to cook with tapioca

Tapioca can be used in a variety of ways, including in cooking and baking. Most recipes that use tapioca are for sugar-sweetened desserts.

Tapioca flour

Tapioca flour is a great ingredient in cooking. 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 to improve both nutritional value and texture.

Here 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 to 30 minutes while stirring occasionally.

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

Here you can find recipes for desserts with tapioca pearls.

Bubble tea

Cooked tapioca pearls are often used in bubble tea, a cold, 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 but have brown sugar blended into them.

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

Summary

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.