Take cassava, an edible starchy root with a nutty flavor that is a staple of West African, Latin American, and Caribbean cuisines. (It’s also known as yuca, manioc, mandioca, casabe, and tapioca.) “Dating back to over 8,000 years ago, cassava was the primary source of carbohydrates in Central and South America, and today, it remains a staple crop in many developing countries as it is highly versatile, nutrient-packed and energy-dense,” says Ilyse Schapiro, RD, CDN. “Plus, cassava is portrayed in Indigenous art today due to its profound impact on the pre-Colombian people,” she adds.
While the plant originated in what is now Peru and Bolivia, “its use spread to and thrives in Africa and Thailand as well, as it’s very drought-resistant,” says Kelly Jones, RD. “But while a great source of energy, raw cassava is toxic so must be prepared properly by soaking for long periods of time, cooking, or fermenting for safety and nutritional benefits.” Why? Raw cassava contains a naturally-occuring form of cyanide. (These compounds break down while cooking to non-toxic, safe levels.)
You can cook cassava in ways similar to starchy vegetables, like potatoes, but it has gained popularity in recent years as an alternative flour for baking—making it a good option for people with celiac disease or who follow a Paleo diet. (You can buy the flour or find it used in products like healthy cheese puffs and grain-free tortillas.) Cassava also has a number of other uses, says Jones. “Tapioca starch, a common additive, comes from cassava and it’s also used as an animal feed. Recently some countries have begun converting it to biofuel as well,” says Jones.
But does cassava have any unique benefits you should know about? Here’s the full lowdown from Schapiro and Jones.
What are the cassava benefits for health and nutrition?
1. It’s rich in vitamin C
Cassava is an excellent source of vitamin C, which is great for supporting immune health as well as natural collagen production. One cup of the cooked root vegetable contains 29 milligrams of vitamin C, which is roughly 39 percent of your recommended daily intake. “The link between Vitamin C and improved immune health has been well-established and considering cassava contains a significant amount of ascorbic acid,” Schapiro says, it can easily help you meet your daily needs.
2. Cassava is high in other antioxidants, too
Every serving of cassava also offers antioxidants including anti-inflammatory phenolic compounds. “Including many different food sources of phenolic compounds in your diet is helpful to provide a variety of antioxidants that can work together to support short- and long-term inflammatory-related health processes,” says Jones.
3. It’s a source of beneficial complex carbohydrates
“Starchy foods often get a bad reputation, but carbohydrates are the preferred and most efficient energy source for the central nervous system and muscles,” says Jones. Cassava is a starch that provides energy while also offering vitamins, antioxidants, and insoluble fiber, making it a complex carbohydrate.
4. It’s also full of fiber
As mentioned above, cassava is a great source of gut-healthy fiber. “At four grams of fiber per cup of cassava in its whole form, cassava can contribute to adequate dietary fiber intake, which is associated with better blood sugar control, reduced blood cholesterol levels, and overall improved gut health,” says Jones. And if your gut is happy, your immune system is too!
5. It might support healthy eyesight
“Vitamin A plays a crucial role eye health, and new varieties of cassava are fortified with provitamin A carotenoids, which helps to increase the absorption of Vitamin A,” says Schapiro. “Researchers suggest consuming cassava can substantially improve Vitamin A intake and reduce the risk of deficiency associated health risks,” she adds, but more studies are still needed to draw a better conclusion.
How to cook with cassava
To fully enjoy cassava benefits, you gotta cook it. “For human consumption, cassava is used in similar ways to potatoes, for making flour, bread, or starch,” says Schapiro. Many baked goods, stews, sauces, and snacks may contain it too.
You can bake with cassava flour, making anything from waffles and pancakes to flatbreads, cookies and pie crust, suggests Jones. If it’s not the flour but rather the starchy veggie itself you can use a few different methods.
“To cook with cassava and make traditional yuca dishes, boiling and frying are the most common methods,” says Jones. “Yuca fries are very popular with spicy seasonings such as cayenne and paprika or paired with a slightly spicy dipping sauce. You can also have boiled and mashed yuca with caramelized onions, similar to how you might prepare mashed potato, minus the dairy,” she adds.
If you’ve never had this delicious root vegetable before, try experimenting with it in the kitchen or look for baked goods and snacks that contain cassava. “If you want to try a homemade recipe, some ideas are a cassava-based beef stew, gluten-free chocolate chip cassava cookies, or cassava bread,” says Schapiro.
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