Tapioca Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Tapioca

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Tapioca is a gluten-free starch that is derived from the storage root of the cassava or yuca plant. Tapioca originated in Brazil but is a common diet staple in many tropical countries around the world because it provides a quick source of carbohydrates. In fact, during World War II, some Southeast Asian countries survived primarily on tapioca.

Today, tapioca is sold in various forms including flakes, flour, or pearls. The ingredient is often used as a thickener. Tapioca pearls can be dyed and sweetened (called boba) and added to sweetened bubble tea. The gummy pearls are also used to make tapioca pudding and other sweet desserts. Tapioca flour is used to make some gluten-free products, including bread.

Even though yuca (cassava) provides a little bit of protein and some vitamins and minerals, tapioca does not. Cassava also contains more fiber. Tapioca provides carbohydrate but has almost no other significant nutritional value.

Tapioca Nutrition Facts

The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for a 100-gram serving (about 2/3 cup) of dry tapioca pearls.

  • Calories: 358
  • Fat: 0.02g
  • Sodium: 1mg
  • Carbs: 88.7g
  • Fiber: 0.9g
  • Sugars: 3.35g
  • Protein: 0.2g

Carbs

Tapioca is very high in carbohydrates, providing nearly 89 grams per 100-gram serving. The majority of carbohydrates in tapioca comes from starch. Just under one gram is from fiber and 3.35 grams come from sugar.

If you consume tapioca pearls as boba—the gummy balls that are added to bubble tea or pudding—you'll consume added sugar, so that carb count will be higher. Boba is usually sweetened with honey or brown sugar.

Tapioca flour is another form of the starch that is often used by those following a gluten-free diet. According to the nutrition facts label on one popular brand, a quarter cup of tapioca flour (30g) contains 110 calories, zero grams of fiber, and zero grams of sugar. 

Tapioca is a very high glycemic food. The estimated glycemic load of a 100-gram serving of tapioca pearls is 94. Glycemic load takes serving size into account when estimating a food's impact on blood sugar.

Fats

There is almost no fat (0.02 grams) in a 100-gram serving of tapioca pearls. But again, if you consume the pearls in tea or pudding you will consume more fat because traditional recipes are made with dairy products, such as milk or cream.

Protein

Tapioca provides very little protein, with a serving providing just 0.2 grams of the macronutrient.

Vitamins and Minerals

Tapioca can be a good source of iron, providing 1.58mg of the mineral. Recommended intakes of the nutrient vary based on age and gender. Tapioca pearls and tapioca flour are not a good source of other vitamins or minerals.

Health Benefits

Many of the health benefits attributed to tapioca come from nutrients provided by the yuca or cassava root. But most of these nutrients are lost in the manufacturing process that turns cassava into tapioca. Still, you will see some brands that advertise the health benefits of tapioca. Not all of these benefits are supported by strong scientific evidence.

For example, several sources promote tapioca consumption to build strong bones and teeth. They cite the fact that tapioca provides calcium. But a 100-gram serving only provides 20mg of the mineral, according to USDA data. Current dietary guidelines provided by the USDA state that adults should consume 1000mg of calcium per day. So eating a full serving of tapioca would only provide 2% of your daily recommended intake.

Still, there is the possibility that tapioca may provide certain benefits to some people when consumed in moderation.

Useful for Those on Some Restrictive Diets

Tapioca is gluten-free and grain-free. Those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can use this flour to make bread and other baked goods (in combination with other gluten-free flours). The flour is also vegetarian, vegan, and is often used by those following a paleo diet, or an autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet. Many popular brands of tapioca flour are also certified kosher.

May Promote Gut Health

Tapioca is a source of resistant starch. Resistant starch passes through the small intestine without being digested. Instead, the starch is fermented in the large intestine and feeds your healthy gut bacteria. Resistant starch made from tapioca is type 4, meaning that various chemical processes are used to make it indigestible.

Researchers are in the process of understanding how different types of resistant starch affect gut biome. But there is some speculation that the changes it promotes in the digestive tract may help to prevent colon cancer and other diseases.

May Help Lower Blood Sugar

Resistant starch is also being studied for its impact on blood sugar. One limited study suggested that type 4 resistant starch may help lower postprandial (after eating) blood glucose levels when standard starch was replaced with a breakfast bar containing tapioca-based RS4.

Researchers are also investigating the role of resistant starch and cassava in the management and prevention of diabetes and obesity. But not enough is known yet to fully understand the relationship. 

May Contribute to the Prevention of Iron-Deficiency Anemia

In some countries, iron deficiency anemia is common in women of childbearing age and children. It can lead to health concerns including birth defects, infant mortality, impaired cognitive function, and poor immunity. A single serving of tapioca pearls provides 1.58mg of iron.

In the U.S., recommended daily allowances for iron vary based on gender and age. Women who are aged 19–50 years should consume 18mg daily. So a serving of tapioca would provide just under 9% of your daily needs. But women over the age of 51 and men over the age of 19 years of age only need 8mg daily. For those people, a serving of tapioca provides almost 20% of the recommended daily intake.

May Promote Breast Milk Production

Starchy foods are sometimes recommended to help boost milk supply when breastfeeding. Tapioca is a complex carbohydrate that's an excellent source of starch and energy. Published evidence reports that cassava is commonly used to increase breastmilk supply by women in some parts of the world. But it is not known if tapioca, specifically, provides this same benefit for breastfeeding mothers.

Allergies

There have been isolated cases of cassava root allergy reactions including incidents in 2003 in Mozambique, 2004 in Brazil, and 2007 in Spain. Cassava allergies have been shown to produce anaphylaxis and are believed to be associated with latex allergies, but more widespread studies are needed to confirm this connection. If you have an allergy to cassava root, you should not consume tapioca.

Adverse Effects

In most cases, tapioca is not likely to cause any adverse effects when prepared properly and consumed in moderation. But there are some concerns when improper processing of cassava occurs or when tapioca is consumed in excess.

Cyanide Poisoning

Like some other plant foods, tapioca (cassava) contains cyanogenetic glycosides that release cyanide in the body. This can lead to neurotoxicity at high levels. There have been some deaths reported in areas such as Nigeria and Uganda and non-fatal toxicity reported in children. Symptoms of non-fatal toxicity include drowsiness, weakness, and vomiting.

Processing raw cassava for tapioca pearls or flour should reduce cyanide levels. However, in April 2019 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an outbreak of suspected cyanide poisoning from cassava flour in Western Uganda involving 98 cases with two deaths. The agency acknowledged, however, that cassava-associated cyanide poisoning outbreaks are rare and that proper processing (soaking, drying, and scraping) can detoxify cassava.

May Promote Obesity

Bubble tea, or boba tea, was originally consumed primarily in Taiwan. But in recent years its popularity has grown and now there are bubble tea shops all over the U.S. and Europe. Bubble tea kits are sold online and the pre-sweetened pearls are sold in shops and on the web.

As consumption of bubble tea has skyrocketed, some nutrition researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about the potential impact on health. Specifically, they are concerned that consumption can impact rates of obesity.

Authors of one study published in a 2019 issue of Food Science and Nutrition compared boba beverages in Asian Pacific communities to other sugar-sweetened drinks and suggested that "public health recommendations should be suggested for moderate consumption of these beverages." Specifically, they expressed concern over the fact that many of the beverages contain high amounts of fat and sugar (sometimes from high fructose corn syrup).

Varieties

Tapioca is available in several forms. The most common preparation is tapioca pearls. Pearls are white or cream-colored and come in a range of sizes—usually 1 millimeter to 8 millimeters in diameter. When you purchase tapioca pearls, they are generally not sweetened, unless specified on the package. Sweetened tapioca pearls are called boba.

Tapioca can also be purchased in flake or flour form. It is not commonly found in all grocery stores, but many online outlets sell the product. The flakes and flour are often described as slightly sweet or flavor-free, making it an easy ingredient to add to recipes.

When It's Best

Some grocery stores sell cassava in the produce section of the market. You'll find it near other root vegetables like potatoes, turnips, or yams. Cassava is available year-round. Tapioca in all forms is also available year-round.

Storage and Food Safety

Tapioca flour can be stored the same way that you store other types of flour. It stays good for years when is kept sealed tightly. An airtight seal prevents exposure to heat, moisture, and bugs. Keep the flour in a cool, dry area, but not in the refrigerator or freezer.

After you soak and sweeten tapioca pearls to make boba, you should consume them within about four hours. Putting them in the refrigerator will harden them. Manufacturers that sell dry tapioca pearls suggest that you consume them within six months.

How to Prepare

You can use tapioca flour or flakes to thicken foods like soups, gravy, or stock-based sauces. It can also add texture to baked goods and can be used as a binder in meat recipes (like burgers or meatloaf). It has a neutral taste that blends easily in sweet and savory recipes.

Tapioca is often favored over other thickeners because it is less expensive. If you are using tapioca flour as a substitute for corn starch in your favorite recipe, use two tablespoons of tapioca for each tablespoon of corn starch. If you are using it to thicken gravy or sauces, wait until the sauce is almost finished and stir in the tapioca gradually. The amount that you need will vary based on the sauce and your preference.

To make boba, you'll need to cook the tapioca pearls. Manufacturers usually provide instructions on the package. Cooking instructions may vary depending on the size of the pearls. If no instructions are provided, you can use the 30 and 30 method. This means 30 minutes of cooking and 30 minutes of rest.

First heat about 10 cups of water to a rolling boil. Add one cup of dried tapioca pearls. Each cup of dried pearls will make about 2 cups of cooked boba. The pearls will begin to float to the surface (this takes about 30 seconds). Then reduce heat to a simmer and cook the boba for about 30 minutes.

After cooking is complete, remove the pot from the heat and let your boba rest for another 30 minutes. You can test the boba at this time. They should have a chewy consistency. If they are still firm, add resting time or cooking time as needed. If the cooking process is too tedious, consider quick-cooking boba—but know that the quick-cooking variety is often not recommended by boba tea enthusiasts.

Once the boba is cooked, many people add simple syrup to sweeten the pearls. From there, they can be added to a tea mixture to make bubble tea. Many fans of the drink add cream or evaporated milk to enhance the sweetness.

Tapioca pudding is another popular use for the pearls. To make this dessert, you'll cook the dried pearls (usually smaller in diameter) in milk while adding sugar. The hot tapioca is added to a bowl of whipped egg yolks to temper the mix, then returned to heat to make a tapioca egg custard. Vanilla or other flavors are usually added to enhance the taste.

Healthy Tapioca Recipes to Try

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