Cassava is a root vegetable widely consumed in developing countries. It provides important nutrients and a resistant starch, which can have health benefits.
Cassava, on the other hand, can have dangerous effects, especially if eaten raw and in large quantities.
This article will explore the unique properties of cassava to determine if it is a safe and healthy food to include in the diet.
What is cassava?
Cassava is a tuber or starch root, with a nutty aroma. Native to South America, it is a major source of calories and carbohydrates for people in developing countries.
It has grown in tropical regions of the world due to its ability to withstand harsh growing conditions – in fact, it is one of the most drought tolerant crops (1).
In the United States, cassava is often called yuca and can also be called Brazilian cassava or arrowroot.
The most consumed part of cassava is the root, which is very versatile. It can be eaten whole, grated or ground in flour to make bread and crackers.
In addition, cassava root is well known as the raw material used to produce tapioca and garri, a product similar to tapioca.
People with food allergies often benefit from the use of cassava root in cooking and baking as it is gluten-free, grain-free and nut-free.
An important note is that the cassava root must be cooked before being consumed. Raw cassava can be toxic, which will be discussed in a later chapter.
Summary: Cassava is a versatile root vegetable that is eaten in different parts of the world. It must be cooked before being eaten.
It contains few key nutrients
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of boiled cassava root contains 112 calories. 98% of them come from carbohydrates and the rest from a small amount of protein and fat.
This portion also provides fiber, in addition to some vitamins and minerals (2).
The following nutrients are found in 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of boiled cassava (2):
Carbohydrates: 27 grams
Fiber: 1 gram
Thiamine: 20% of the RDI
Phosphorus: 5% of RDI
Calcium: 2% of RDI
Riboflavin: 2% of the RDI
Boiled cassava root also contains small amounts of iron, vitamin C and niacin (2).
Overall, the nutritional profile of cassava is not relevant. Although it provides vitamins and minerals, the amounts are minimal.
There are many other root vegetables you can eat that will provide many more nutrients – beets and sweet potatoes, to name just two.
Summary: Cassava is an important source of carbohydrates and also provides a small amount of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Cassava processing reduces its nutritional value
Processing cassava by peeling, cutting and cooking considerably reduces the nutritional value (2).
In fact, many vitamins and minerals are destroyed by the treatment, as are most fibers and resistant starch (2).
Therefore, the most popular and processed forms of cassava – such as tapioca and garri – have very limited nutritional value.
For example, 1 ounce (28 grams) of tapioca pearls provides only calories and a small amount of certain minerals (3).
Boiling cassava root is a cooking method that has been shown to retain most nutrients, with the exception of vitamin C, which is heat sensitive and easily leachable in water (2).
Summary: Although cassava contains many nutrients, processing methods significantly reduce its nutritional value by destroying vitamins and minerals.
It is high in calories
Cassava contains 112 calories per 3.5 ounce (100 gram) serving, which is quite high compared to other root vegetables (2).
For example, the same serving of sweet potatoes provides 76 calories and the same amount of beets provides only 44 (4, 5).
This is what makes cassava such an important crop for developing countries, as it is an important source of calories (2).
However, its high calorie content can cause more harm than good to the general population.
Regular consumption of high-calorie foods is associated with weight gain and obesity, so eat cassava in moderation and in reasonable portions (6, 7). An appropriate serving is about 1/3 to 1/2 cup (73 to 113 grams).
Summary: Cassava contains a large number of calories, so consume it in moderation and in appropriate portions.
Rich in resistant starch
Cassava is rich in resistant starch, a type of starch that bypasses digestion and has properties similar to those of soluble fiber.
Eating foods with a high content of resistant starch can have several general health benefits (8).
First, resistant starch nourishes beneficial bacteria in the gut, which can help reduce inflammation and promote digestive health (8, 9).
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, as well as its role in promoting satiety and reducing appetite (10, 11, 12, 13).
The benefits of resistant starch are promising, but it is important to note that many processing methods can reduce the content of resistant cassava starch (14, 15).
Cassava products, such as flour, generally have less resistant starch than cassava root which has been cooked and then cooled in all its forms (14, 15).
Summary: Cassava as a whole is rich in resistant starch, known for its role in preventing certain metabolic conditions and promoting intestinal health.
One of the biggest drawbacks of cassava is its anti-nutrient content.
Antinutrients are plant compounds that can interfere with digestion and inhibit the absorption of vitamins and minerals in the body.
These are not problems for most healthy people, but their effects are important to keep in mind.
People at risk of malnutrition are more likely to be affected. Interestingly, this includes populations that depend on cassava as a staple food.
Here are the most important anti-nutrients found in cassava:
Saponins: antioxidants that can have drawbacks, such as reduced absorption of certain vitamins and minerals (16).
Phytate: this antinutrient can interfere with the absorption of magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc (2, 17).
Tannins: known to reduce protein digestibility and interfere with the absorption of iron, zinc, copper and thiamine (2).
The effects of antinutrients are most evident when consumed frequently and as part of a nutritionally inadequate diet.
As long as cassava is eaten only occasionally, antinutrients should not be of great concern.
In fact, in certain circumstances, antinutrients such as tannins and saponins can have beneficial health effects (18, 19, 20).
Summary: Cassava antinutrients can interfere with the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals and cause digestive upset. This is mainly a concern for people who depend on cassava as a staple food.
This can have dangerous effects in certain circumstances
Cassava can be dangerous if eaten raw, in large quantities, or if it is improperly prepared.
Indeed, raw cassava contains chemicals called cyanogenic glycosides, which can release cyanide into the body when consumed (21).
If consumed frequently, they increase the risk of cyanide poisoning, which can compromise thyroid and nerve function. It is associated with paralysis and organ damage and can be fatal (21, 22).
Those with poor overall nutritional status and low protein intake are more likely to experience these effects because proteins help rid the body of cyanide (21).
This is why cassava cyanide poisoning is a major concern for those living in developing countries. Many people in these countries suffer from protein deficiencies and depend on cassava as their main source of calories (21).
In addition, cassava has been found in some parts of the world to absorb harmful chemicals from the soil, such as arsenic and cadmium. This can increase the risk of cancer in those who depend on cassava as a staple (23).
Summary: Frequent consumption of cassava is associated with cyanide poisoning, especially if eaten raw and poorly prepared.
How to make cassava safer for consumption
Cassava is generally safe when properly prepared and sometimes eaten in moderate amounts. A reasonable serving size is about 1/3–1 / 2 cups.
Here are some ways to make cassava safer for consumption (21, 24):
Peel: the skin of the cassava root contains most of the cyanide-producing compounds.
Soak it: Soaking cassava by soaking it in water for 48 to 60 hours before it is cooked and eaten can reduce the amount of harmful chemicals it contains.
Cook it: Since harmful chemicals are found in raw cassava, it is essential to cook it well, for example by boiling, roasting or cooking.
Combine it with protein: Eating protein with cassava can be helpful, as protein helps rid the body of toxic cyanide (21).
Maintain a balanced diet: it is possible to prevent the negative effects of cassava by including a variety of foods in the diet and not relying on it as the only source of nutrition.
It is important to note that products made from cassava root, such as cassava flour and tapioca, contain compounds that induce little or no cyanide and are safe for human consumption.
Summary: You can make cassava safer for consumption with different strategies, including using certain methods of preparation and consuming it in reasonable portions.
How to use cassava
There are many ways to incorporate cassava into the diet.
You can prepare different snacks and dishes yourself with the root. It is usually sliced and then cooked or roasted, just like the potato would be prepared.
In addition, the cassava root can be crushed or mixed with fried potatoes, omelets and soups. It is also sometimes ground in flour and used in bread and crackers.
You can also take advantage of it in the form of tapioca, which is a starch extracted from the cassava root by a washing and pulp process.
Tapioca is commonly used as a thickener for puddings, cakes and soups.
Summary: Cassava is generally used the same way as potatoes and is a great addition to any dish. It can also be ground in flour or tasted as tapioca.
Cassava contains healthy properties, but its negative effects seem to outweigh the benefits.
Not only is it rich in calories and anti-nutrients, but it can cause cyanide poisoning if improperly prepared or consumed in large quantities.
While this is primarily a problem for those who rely on cassava as a staple, it is nonetheless important to keep in mind.
In addition, cassava products such as tapioca and garri have been developed enough to remove toxic chemicals and are safe to eat.
Overall, cassava is not a food that should be an integral part of your diet. If you eat it, prepare it properly and eat it in reasonable portions.