Tapioca is a dietary staple in Africa, Asia and South America. It is a starch extracted in cassava root, a tuber native in South America. It can be used instead of flour in baking and cooking and often used in making desserts such as puddings and bubble tea. In fact, this staple can also be found in beverages and puddings in the United States.
Tapioca is almost pure starch — almost made up entirely of carbs with minor amounts of protein, fat and fiber. It provides energy with almost no essential nutrients that is why it can be considered an “empty calorie staple.”
It is usually sold as flour, flakes or pearls. Tapioca flour is often mistaken as cassava flour which is ground cassava root however, tapioca is the starchy liquid that is extracted from the cassava root. It is also naturally gluten-free and serves as wheat substitute in cooking and baking for people with gluten allergy.
Tapioca is a natural source of resistant starch linked to many health benefits. It functions like fiber which aids in good digestion and it also helps lower blood sugar levels after meals, improve glucose and insulin metabolism and helps increase fullness. It is suitable for those allergic or intolerant to wheat, grains and gluten and also a good replacement for wheat and corn-based products.
Although commercially packaged tapioca is safe, the plant can be toxic if not neatly and properly prepared. Tapioca naturally produces cyanide, which is poisonous to humans but may be removed during processing. Preparation is done by squeezing out starchy liquid from the cassava root and allowing the water to evaporate, leaving behind the tapioca powder.
However, improper preparation of cassava root can cause cyanide poisoning, a paralytic disease called konzo and even death. Symptoms include headache and dizziness and in severe cases, convulsions or coma. Cassava allergy can also occur for people with allergy to latex due to cross-reactivity which means the body mistakes compounds in cassava for allergens in latex (latex-fruit syndrome). In general, allergic symptoms to tapioca can include: diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pains, headache, dizziness, dilated pupils, spasms, sweating and chills.
Tapioca allergy is not very common so it is suggested to seek medical advice for proper diagnosis and management. Peeling, slicing and thoroughly cooking tapioca removes cyanide risk. In case of severe reactions, immediately bring the patient to the hospital for treatment and for those already aware of the triggers and their allergy to tapioca, avoidance is the best management to prevent allergic symptoms and further complications.
This material is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease and should not be relied as medical advice. Always consult your doctor before taking any medication or supplements.