What Is Tapioca—and Is It Healthy?

Updated 11/07/19

Susan Brooks-Dammann/Stocksy 

Chances are that you’ve consumed tapioca at some point in your life. Whether you’ve enjoyed a simple and sweet bowl of tapioca pudding topped with fresh mango or you’ve always been a big fan of colorful boba tea armed with giant straws and weighed down by hefty scoops of flavorful tapioca balls, this gelatinous substance may seem like a mystery, but once you break it down, you’ll realize that it’s relatively simple ingredient to wrap your head around.

The great thing about tapioca isn’t its flavor (it really doesn’t have much on its own) or its nutritional value (it’s lacking that, too). Tapioca does, however, have one unique ability that can enhance lots of foods or beverages: that jelly-like texture. But what exactly is tapioca and where does it come from? Read on to get all the facts on this unusual ingredient.

The Lowdown on Tapioca

Tapioca is derived from the cassava root. More specifically, it’s the starch that’s extracted from the root. Tapioca and the cassava root are native to Brazil but grown and used in other countries from Nigeria and Thailand, to Indonesia. However, the growing popularity of tapioca as an extremely versatile food additive for both sweet and savory dishes has created a demand for the cassava root in countries all over the world. 

As mentioned above, it has no nutrients of its own—an interesting fact when you take into consideration that it’s a staple food for millions of people living in the tropical regions in which the cassava root is grown. But what it lacks in nutritional value it makes up for in its effectiveness as thickening agent for various processed foods on shelves around the globe.

Tapioca also holds up better than other thickening agents under pressure. Unlike cornstarch for example, it can be both frozen and thawed without breaking down. Once it’s processed, it can be purchased in a variety of different forms for further processing—from flakes and sticks, to the more well-known pearls and tapioca “flour”—or ready-to-eat products like tapioca crackers, chips, and puddings.

Is It Healthy?

Again, tapioca isn’t, and will most likely never be, renowned for its nutritional value, so, like most things in life, it should be enjoyed in moderation. It’s a relatively high carb ingredient—a cup of tapioca contains about 500 calories and 100 grams of carbohydrates. Other than that, you’ll get just about nothing else; no fats, no proteins, and no vitamins.

On the plus side, tapioca is gluten-free, grain-free, and nut-free, making it a great ingredient for the kitchens of any with those relevant dietary restrictions or allergies. In fact, if you take a peek at the ingredient lists of commercially prepared foods in the gluten-free aisle of your favorite grocery store, you’ll see that many are made with tapioca flour as a key thickening agent.

You can use tapioca in your own cooking as an alternative to white flour for sauces or even to thicken fruity pie fillings.

Preparing Tapioca

When the tapioca starch is extracted from the cassava plant, it must be soaked and boiled. This process is what gives it its characteristic gel-like consistency. The tapioca can then be added to foods as a thickening agent, often before the food is cooked. 

Uncooked tapioca is typically opaque, but the cooking process will eliminate much of the opacity and leave the substance semi-transparent. The tapioca can then be dyed to complement the colors of whatever food it’s being added to—if necessary. Tapioca pearls for instance are usually given their own set of vibrant colors and/or flavors to add to the bold presentation of things like boba drinks or sweet desserts. If you’ve had them before, you’ll know that tapioca pearls (also called boba or boba pearls) are chewy and, depending on their size, can dissolve easily or stay intact for a long time. 

Tapioca can be purchased in stores or online, most commonly in the form of individual tapioca pearls of various sizes or tapioca flour. When you’re looking to create some original recipes, tapioca is great for pies, gravies, sauces, and puddings, but it can also be used to enhance the thick, silky texture of soups and stews — like this beef stew recipe.

How to Store Tapioca

The most important thing when it comes to storing tapioca, is to keep the product dry and relatively cool. Any humidity could reduce the quality of the product or cause it go bad.

Whether you have uncooked pearls, sticks, or flour, transfer any open packages to an airtight container and place in a dark, cool, and dry cupboard. Unopened packages should be kept in the same condition for the best results.

Tapioca flour will last for about one year if kept correctly. Opened and unopened packages of uncooked pearls will keep for about six months; you can also keep them in the fridge in an airtight container. Cooked tapioca pearls should be eaten the day they’re cooked and kept at room temperature in simple syrup.

Up next: These are the healthy foods you should be eating every day.

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