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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
Cassava is high in resistance 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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.