Dec 6, 2017 Food

What Is Tapioca—and Is It Healthy?

by Chris Scalise
PHOTO:

Susan Brooks-Dammann/Stocksy

Chances are that you’ve consumed tapioca at some point. Maybe you’ve enjoyed a sweet bowl of tapioca pudding on occasion or maybe you’re a fan of those irresistible boba teas with their giant straws and flavorful tapioca balls. This gelatinous substance may seem like a mystery, but once you break it down, you’ll realize that it’s a simple substance.

The great thing about tapioca isn’t its flavor (it doesn’t have much of a flavor on its own) or its nutritional value (it doesn’t have much of that either). Tapioca does, however, have the ability to enhance any food or beverage to which its added with its unique texture. But what exactly is it? Read on to learn the facts about this unusual ingredient.

Tapioca is derived from the cassava root. Specifically, it’s the starch that’s pulled from the root. It has no nutrients of its own, but it makes an effective thickening agent. Tapioca and its root are native to Brazil, but the popularity of tapioca has created a demand for the cassava root in countries throughout the world.

Tapioca’s lack of flavor makes it a versatile food additive, as it can complement both sweet and savory dishes. Tapioca also holds up better than other thickening agents under pressure. Unlike cornstarch, for example, it can be frozen and thawed without breaking down.

Again, tapioca isn’t renowned for its nutritional value, so it should be enjoyed in moderation. A cup of tapioca contains about 500 calories and 100 grams of carbohydrates. There’s no fat, protein, or vitamin enrichment. On the plus side, tapioca contains no gluten, so it’s a great ingredient to have in any gluten-free kitchen. In fact, many commercially prepared foods in the gluten-free aisle are made with tapioca as a thickening agent.

When the tapioca starch is extracted from the cassava plant, it must be soaked and boiled. This process provides it with its gel-like consistency. The tapioca can then be added to foods as a thickening agent, usually before the food is cooked. Uncooked tapioca is usually opaque, but the cooking process eliminates much of the opacity, leaving the substance semi-transparent. The tapioca can then be dyed to complement the colors of whatever food it’s being added to. Tapioca pearls can even be given their own unique colors to create a bold and vibrant presentation, as is often the case with boba drinks.

Tapioca pearls are chewy and dissolve easily. They can be purchased in stores or online, most commonly in the form of individual pearls or tapioca flour. When you’re looking to create some original recipes, tapioca is great for pies, gravies, and puddings. It can even be used to enhance soups.

Read on for a beef stew crockpot recipe that utilizes tapioca balls.

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