Tapioca is a root starch sourced from the bitter cassava plant, a native South American plant that resembles yams and potatoes. Its name comes from the South American Tupi name ‘tipioka’, which roughly translates as ‘to process and obtain the starch’, a reference to the fact that the cassava plant’s roots are poisonous and need to be processed before their starch is available for consumption. Tapioca is mainly used to thicken soups and sauces or to sweeten baked goods, and the starch can be made into sticks, flakes, pearls, or flour. It is the latter that we will discuss in this article.
What Is Tapioca Flour?
Tapioca flour is an extremely smooth flour which, like tapioca itself, makes for a great thickener since it never discolors and contains no discernible taste or smell. Moreover, it never coagulates or separates when refrigerated or frozen, and it leaves baked goods (especially bread) with a pleasing white color. These positive qualities, coupled with the fact that tapioca flour is also wheat-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free, means that the flour is becoming increasingly popular in Western kitchens, especially in the United States.
Lack of Nutrition
Despite being a convenient and functional thickener, however, tapioca flour’s nutritional value leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, from a nutritional standpoint, it is almost worthless.
Aside from being very high in carbohydrates and therefore calories (100g of the flour contains a whopping 340 calories), tapioca flour contains hardly any fiber, fat, or protein (indeed, protein deficiency is a common characteristic amongst people living in regions in which tapioca is a staple food), and practically no vitamins save for trace amounts of niacin, a B vitamin that helps the nervous system to function properly.
On the more positive side, tapioca flour does contains some minerals. 100g of the flour provides us with 1mg of magnesium and iron, 7mg of phosphorous, 20mg of calcium, and 10mg of potassium. However, these are unimpressive figures. To put things in perspective, enriched white flour (widely considered to be unhealthy) exceeds tapioca flour’s mineral content in every regard, often considerably. For example, 100g of white flour contains over 100mg of phosphorous and potassium.
Ultimately, I cannot recommend tapioca flour as a cooking ingredient because it is so nutritionally barren. If you became curious about tapioca and/or its flour because you once ate a tapioca-based food and really liked its taste, please remember that the flavor of tapioca products is almost always improved with sugar or vanilla, which further compounds their calorie content.
Therefore, I recommend the following healthier flours. Most of them contain the positive qualities of tapioca flour without the negatives:
- Buckwheat flour – A gluten-free flour that is high in fiber, protein, trace minerals such as magnesium, copper, and zinc, and has a low glycemic index.
- Coconut flour – Another gluten-free flour that is high in protein, fiber, and (unusually for a flour) very low in carbohydrates.
- Potato flour – Despite not being the most popular of choices among cooks due to its unpleasant potato-like texture and taste, potato flour is still a decent, moderately nutritious alternative. It, too, is gluten-free.