I recently went in search of the perfect grain-free, gluten-free chip. After many a taste testing experience leaving me feeling dissatisfied and out of luck, I finally stumbled on Siete’s Grain Free Tortilla Chips. Instead of the usual chip-based ingredients, Siete used an ingredient called cassava flour. I had absolutely no idea what cassava flour was, where it came from, if it was nutritionally sound, or if I should even be consuming it. Therefore, I decided to do a bit of research! Here is what I learned.
What is Cassava?
Manihot esculenta goes by many names — manioc, yuca, aipim, and Brazilian arrowroot — but, in the united states, we refer to this plant-based ingredient as cassava. Yes, it’s gluten-free, but cassava has many other properties that everyone consuming it should know about.
Cassava is a shrub-like plant native to South America whose “starchy tuberous root” provides the tropics with its third-largest source of carbohydrates. Even though it originated in Latin America, due to the ease of growing cassava and its nutritional value, other countries, such as Nigeria and Thailand, have become some of the largest cultivators and exporters of the root.
It’s not just used for flour. Dried and ground cassava is referred to as tapioca, a starch extracted from the cassava root used primarily as a thickening agent in yogurts, puddings, and other foods. Cassava can also be fried creating a food substance called garri, a broadly used term referring to powdery materials, such as flour grains, but, more widely used to indicate a fried tapioca food item.
The Pros and Cons of Cassava
Cassava root is an excellent plant-based ingredient to have stocked in your kitchen. With that said, as with any new food ingredient, it’s important to know the pros and cons, especially how to consume the product safely. Here are a few important pros and cons when it comes to cassava!
Pro: Resistant Starch
One of the greatest health benefits of cassava root is its resistant starch. Resistant starch refers to a type of starch that acts like soluble fiber. It gets its name from the fact that it is resistant to digestion leading to positive health benefits including low blood sugar, improved insulin sensitivity, and even a reduction in appetite. Due to its resistance, this starch is then fermented in the large intestine where it becomes fiber.
Something I learned during the research into cassava was that many roots and tubers (sweet or bitter varieties) are naturally inclined to have toxins. The sweeter the tuber, the lesser the amount of toxin and vice versa. When it comes to the cassava root, you want to watch out for levels of cyanide. When cassava is improperly prepared, it can “leave enough residual cyanide to cause acute cyanide intoxication, goiters, and even ataxia, partial paralysis, or death.” With that said, the bitter varieties of cassava — meaning they have higher toxicity levels — are generally not cultivated for consumption, but are grown as “food security” or “fall back” crops.
While this may sound scary, it’s all about choosing a dependable product from a dependable source.
There are two ways to verify that your cassava root is dependable. First, research the company and learn their mission, goals, and, most importantly, a run-down of their ingredients. For example, Siete has an entire page dedicated to explaining the process of choosing ingredients and making the food product. Secondly, if you are truly concerned about your food product, you can access the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in order to verify that the product has been cleared for consumption.
Pro: Key Nutrients
Cassava root is popularly consumed around the world, especially in developing countries, due to its affordability and its high caloric and carbohydrate content. A small amount of cassava, about 100 grams, offers 27 grams of carbohydrates and 112 calories, as well as small quantities of fiber, thiamine, phosphorous, calcium, iron, vitamin c, niacin, and riboflavin. With that said, it’s important to keep in mind that when cassava root is processed it loses a portion of its nutritional value.
Anti-nutrients sound scary, but it’s really about educating yourself on what they are. Anti-nutrients are natural compounds — such as lectin, tannins, gluten, and phytic acid, to name a few — within many plant-based foods such as grains, beans, nuts, legumes, vegetables, leaves, plant roots, seed foods, and even fruit. These compounds can “interfere with the absorption of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients,” as well as block important digestive enzymes.
With that said, not all anti-nutrients are villains, but some, such as polyphenols and flavonoids, offer health benefits when consumed in appropriate amounts. Unfortunately, cassava root contains tannins, phytate, and saponins, all of which are anti-nutrients.
The key here is moderation.
Instead of using cassava flour or consuming cassava root products as your sole baking or snacking item, mix it in occasionally with other gluten-free products such as almond or coconut flour products.
Zucchini Fritters With Citrus Yogurt Sauce/One Green Planet
When it comes to using cassava flour, it’s all about experimenting with the flavor spectrum and texture capabilities. For instance, cassava flour is not as sweet as coconut and is not as thick as almond. Some recipes combine cassava with other plant-based, gluten-free flours, while others stick to cassava alone. Here are a few ways to integrate and experiment with cassava flour!
Rhubarb Champagne Cake/One Green Planet
The number one use for cassava in the United States is baking. Cassava flour is a great gluten-free alternative, especially for those that can’t consume almond or coconut flour. While there are cassava flour-particular recipes, such as this Pumpkin Pie Stuffed Dough Balls or these easy Thumbprint Cookies, you can simply substitute cassava flour almost any other plant-based flour. Substitute cassava flour for almond flour in this Chocolate Covered Peanut Brownie Bars or this Rhubarb Champagne Cake. If you’re not a fan of coconut flour, try substituting cassava flour in this Currant and Berry Tart With Date Caramel or in these Zucchini Fritters With Citrus Yogurt Sauce.
Summer Vegetable Flatbread/One Green Planet
Many times, you’ll find recipes combing cassava flour with other plant-based flours. This is mostly due to taste and texture. It’s all about finding out what works best for you!
Experiment a bit in the kitchen with recipes that combine flours and recipes that stick true to cassava alone. In this Squash Ravioli With Kale Pesto and Pine Nut recipe, you combine both cassava and almond flour in order to create the perfect ravioli filling. Yet, this Summer Vegetable Flatbread Pizza uses cassava flour along to make the pizza bread. You can also start out with simple bread recipes, such as this simple Naan Bread recipe or this Gluten-Free High Fiber Bread, that requires gluten-free flour of your choice.
In order to get your cassava experimentation on, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!