For people who try to avoid gluten — the protein in wheat, barley and rye that progressively more people are becoming sensitive to — it can be hard to find alternatives that taste as neutral as wheat and hold together as well. Enter cassava flour.
Fueled by the market growth of the Paleo movement and an ability to claim “gluten free,” “grain free,” and “nut free” on the label, cassava flour has grown drastically in popularity.
What Is Cassava Flour?
A root called yucca is the plant used to produce cassava. Cassava is somewhat synonymous with tapioca, which is the starch extracted from it. The flavor of cassava is very mild, and it works better for binding than other whole-food-based flours, which means gluten-free bakers can bake goods that hold together with less reliance on gums and other starches.
Is Cassava Good for You?
Cassava flour, even before being refined into tapioca starch, is still mainly starch. It contains very little protein; about 1.6 grams per 100 grams. A 100-gram serving contains 79.8 grams of carbohydrates, 11.9 of which are fiber. And the sodium content is on the high end for flour, at 417 milligrams per serving.
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What about when you refine the yucca into its sibling product, tapioca flour? The nutrition value gets even worse. Note that tapioca flour and tapioca starch are the exact same product. The terms can be used interchangeably. Tapioca flour contains approximately the same amount of carbohydrates per 100 grams, but has zero fiber.
When attempting to tout cassava as a health food, manufacturers as well as Paleo diet websites refer to the flour as a great source of carbohydrates. The problem with saying this is that there are more than enough great sources of carbohydrates that actually contain much larger quantities of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and more. From a health perspective, cassava flour isn’t a product from which anyone’s diet can specifically benefit.
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Ounce for ounce, cassava flour has double the carbohydrate and calorie content of sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes offer nearly four times the RDA of vitamin A in a 100-gram serving, not to mention multiple forms of vitamin B, potassium and eye-health-enhancing lutein, making them a much more nutritious source of carbohydrates.
On top of cassava flour itself having so little health benefits to offer, when you purchase gluten-free products made with it, they tend to contain a menagerie of nutritionally void starches. Fortunately, some brands are taking heed and mixing cassava flour with healthier ingredients, which is better than brands that combine cassava or tapioca with other starches and gums.
Adding cassava flour to your diet can easily lead to weight gain (it’s actually heralded as an easy way to gain weight quickly!), so if this is a concern of yours, it’s better to just avoid it. If you don't have concerns about weight gain, while it won’t provide you much health benefit, it’s unlikely to be particularly harmful to you.
What I Use
As a chef and nutritionist, I definitely don’t use cassava flour in my work. I like to encourage others to eat well, and this is not an example of eating well to me. I prefer other whole-food flours like coconut and almond flours, or garbanzo or brown rice flour for higher-carbohydrate, non-Paleo, gluten-free baking needs — all of these offer more nutrition than cassava flour.
For recipes that require binders, such as gluten-free crackers, I use psyllium husks instead of gums. There will always be foods on the market claiming to be of high quality because of what they do not contain, and cassava flour is a prime illustration of this. But keep in mind: Just because a food doesn’t contain things you don’t want to consume, that doesn’t mean it does contain things that you do want to.
What do YOU Think? Do you bake or cook with any of the whole-food flours mentioned? Do you bake with cassava flour? What has your experience been? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Ariane Resnick is a private chef and certified nutritionist who specializes in organic farm-to-table cuisine and creates indulgent, seemingly "normal" food out of impeccably clean, whole-food ingredients. S Ariane has also been featured in Well+Good NYC, InStyle, Star, Goop.com, Food.com, Huffington Post, Refinery29.com, Muscle & Fitness, Men's Fitness and the Food Network's Chopped. Connect with Ariane on her website, Facebook and Twitter.