We have all heard of tapioca pudding, but many people are unaware of the benefits of tapioca. This starch-based ingredient is commonly used to thicken foods like soups and stews. It is even used in some drinks, such as bubble tea or boba tea. Tapioca flour is also used in baked goods.
The uses of tapioca are not limited to food, though. This ingredient is also used for pharmaceutical purposes and household purposes, such as to starch clothing and thicken natural paint.
Tapioca is often confused with cassava root, which is the vegetable that tapioca starch is extracted from. Some of the cassava benefits are shared with those of tapioca. Though tapioca offers some nutritional benefits, many of the benefits of tapioca have to do with what is not in tapioca, such as cholesterol and allergens.
What Is Tapioca?
Tapioca is the starch extracted from cassava root. It is often manufactured in pearl or powder form. Tapioca pearls are used in drinks and liquid foods while the powdered version is more common in cooking, baking and nonfood purposes.
Cassava root is the source of tapioca. Since it comes from a starchy vegetable, it is no surprise that tapioca is considered a starch and mainly consists of carbohydrates. This explains why it is sometimes used to add starch and stiffness to clothes.
According to the USDA, 1/2 cup of tapioca pearls contain the following nutritional profile:
- 272 calories
- 67.4 grams of carbohydrates (22 percent daily value or DV)
- 0.1 grams of protein
- 0 grams of fat
- 0.7 grams of fiber
- 2.5 grams of sugar
- 7 percent DV of iron
- 4 percent DV of manganese
Tapioca is also used in foods for people with dietary restrictions — not because of what is in tapioca but because of what is not in tapioca. Tapioca is cholesterol-free, low in sodium and free of common allergens, such as gluten, wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, fish and nuts.
Because it is allergen friendly and suitable for people with various dietary limitations, tapioca can be used in place of many ingredients. For example, it can be used instead of cornstarch, potato starch, flour and more.
Since it is grain-free and gluten-free, tapioca powder is often used as an alternative flour in baking. However, other foods made with tapioca, such as baked goods, may contain allergens from other ingredients.
Tapioca Versus Cassava Root
Tapioca is not the same thing as cassava root, though the two terms are often used interchangeably. Cassava root is considered a whole food, whereas tapioca is the extracted starch that comes from a whole food.
The two also have very different nutritional profiles. Tapioca is a concentrated form of cassava, so if comparing the same serving size, cassava would be lower in calories and carbohydrates, yet higher in vitamins and minerals. According to the USDA, cassava root also has more protein, fiber, potassium and vitamin C than tapioca.
Both tapioca and cassava root have very mild flavors, making them suitable ingredients to add to sweet or savory dishes. Cassava root can also be ground into a flour as a gluten-free alternative, though tapioca powder is preferred in cases where more starch is needed.
Like tapioca, cassava root is rich in resistant starch. However, it is important to note that certain vegetables, including cassava, lose some nutritional value when cooked or processed. This is the case with cassava — as it is processed and the starch is extracted to produce tapioca, the nutritional content decreases.
A June 2015 study published in the Nigerian Food Journal compared several types of cassava vegetables and their resistant starch content before and after different processing methods. Resistant starch content in cassava was decreased after fermenting, cooking, frying and other forms of manipulation. This research suggests that the cassava benefits related to resistant starch are lessened when processed to make tapioca in particular.
Health Benefits of Tapioca
Though tapioca can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle, tapioca is not inherently a health food. The calories in tapioca mainly come from carbohydrates, and it is low in vitamins and minerals. This is why tapioca starch is mainly viewed as a binding agent or thickener that is added to dishes and not the main attraction.
However, there are cassava benefits that may be shared with tapioca. Cassava is a great source of resistant starch, which is extracted to make tapioca. Resistant starch is especially beneficial for the digestive tract.
A June 2017 study published in Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry reviewed the nutritional traits of resistant starch that make it so beneficial for gut health. Researchers found that in both humans and animals resistant starch improves the population of "good" bacteria in the gut microbiome. It may also have properties related to anti-inflammation, anti-diabetes and anti-obesity. More research is needed.
In a March 2015 study published in Advances in Nutrition, researchers looked at animal- and human-based research to determine the roles of resistant starch beyond gut health. In human participants, resistant starch was found to increase insulin sensitivity. Researchers note that this benefit may also be attributed to meeting the requirement for dietary fiber, especially in fermented foods.
Should You Eat Tapioca?
There is some controversy surrounding the advantages and disadvantages of tapioca starch, flour and pearls. The controversy surrounds the lack of nutrients in tapioca since it is a concentrated source of starch.
There is also little evidence that supports recommending the consumption of tapioca regularly for health benefits. However, there is also little evidence that recommends against consuming it for health risks. Tapioca seems to be neutral in terms of health, though it is high in calories and carbs.
Think of it as a binding or thickening agent in other foods, such as tapioca pudding or bubble tea. When consuming processed foods made with tapioca ingredients, be mindful of the added ingredients and sugar content.
If you are looking for a gluten-free alternative to semolina flour, tapioca flour may be a suitable option. For health benefits, the cassava benefits likely outweigh those of tapioca.
- MyFoodData: “Nutrition Facts for Tapioca Pearl Dry”
- MyFoodData: “Nutrition Facts for Cassava”
- Nigerian Food Journal: “The Resistant Starch Content of Some Cassava Based Nigerian Foods”
- Advances in Nutrition: “Role of Resistant Starch in Improving Gut Health, Adiposity and Insulin Resistance.”
- Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry: “Resistant Starch Regulates Gut Microbiota: Structure, Biochemistry and Cell Signalling.”