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  • Aalap Patel

The Cassava Adventure Continues

Keeping Things Together With Tapioca Starch

Following last month’s deep-dive into yuca (a.k.a. the cassava root), we knew we couldn’t leave at just one article. This natively South American tuber is dominating the gluten-free industry,

So this month, we’re taking a deeper look at tapioca starch, the close relative of cassava flour.

While tapioca starch is a common ingredient in numerous gluten-free flour mixes (which also contains ingredients such as cornstarch, potato starch, and almond flour), it’s built up a formidable resume for itself going solo as well.

So let’s look at how tapioca starch keeps things together in the gluten-free market.

Why are tapioca starch and the yucca root so popular right now?

Yuca has the ability to grow in harsh environments where other crops cannot flourish. From dry weather to soil that offers little nutrients, cassava cultivation can flourish in countries where wheat crops demand more and more scarce resources. This ruggedness and virility are helping more countries embrace cassava crops as part of their agricultural economy, helping to produce a more sustainable market for cassava products.

The cassava root can be stored unharvested in the ground without affecting the plant’s quality. By tapping into this long-term storage benefit, farmers can extend their harvest and help create a more sustainable crop that can weather favorable and harsh market conditions.

What are some of tapioca starch’s most popular uses?

From thickening agents to creating crispy coatings to gluten-free baking, tapioca starch ticks all the boxes of other gluten-free starches. But where it trumps other gluten-free starches (and wheat flour in some cases) is with its ability to retain its thickening properties, which aren’t broken down by the acids in stews or fillings, even when frozen, This is something that other gluten-free flours, like cornstarch, fail in.

When used in gluten-free baking products, tapioca starch can be used in a 1:1 ratio with other gluten-free flour as a wheat-free alternative. That said, it would be utterly irresponsible not to mention pão de queijo. This delicious, cheesy, bite-sized Brazilian bread follows a simple traditional recipe that uses tapioca starch on its own.

What’s the difference between tapioca starch and cassava flour?

Even though both ingredients are produced from the same plant, their characteristics and uses vary greatly. So let’s start from the top and see how these two yucca ingredients differ.

The difference starts with how each ingredient is produced.

While cassava flour uses the whole yucca plant, tapioca starch goes through a slightly more intensive process to leave behind only the most concentrated starch possible.

Cassava flour is produced by drying and grounding the entire blanched part of the yucca root. As such, it contains high levels of fiber and is especially beneficial for digestive systems. Cassava flour also retains a nutty flavor, something that adds amazing character to baked items when it replaces wheat flour.

Tapioca starch, on the other hand, is created by washing and pulping the yucca root. Once the root has been washed and grated, it is pulped and drained of excess water. Once the water has evaporated from the remaining pulp, you are left with a fine, flavorless, white powder that contains only the starch of the cassava root.

Their functional characteristics make them ideal for different purposes

The primary purpose of flour is to offer structure to create strength in the product. You know, like the difference between a toffee pudding and a cake. That’s flour for you.

Starch, on the other hand, mirrors the sticky, glue-like features of gluten, pulling other ingredients together. It’s that ability to bring flavors together and have products retain their intended aestheticism that makes starch so valuable.

The difference in nutritional benefits opens up new doors.

Cassava flour packs a punch when it comes to nutrition. It has higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and fiber content. The extensive pulping process does away with much of the nutrition of the root when tapioca starch is created. So even though it still helps with blood sugar regulation and cholesterol control, it doesn’t pack as big a punch as cassava flour nutritionally.

That said, tapioca starch can’t help but offer the following health benefits as well:

  • It’s easy on the stomach due to its lack of gluten.

  • The high calcium levels help with bone strength, improve nerve communication, and reduce blood clotting.

  • Iron richness increases oxygen levels in the bloodstream.

But it’s exactly this small nutritional footprint that makes tapioca starch such a valuable ingredient. It offers a wealth of benefits in food production without affecting the nutritional characteristics of the products it's included in.

Why is the tapioca industry growing so rapidly?

The tapioca market is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 6.62% till 2029, with tapioca starch continuing to be used in widespread applications and industries, from general end-use food products to baby supplements to pet food.

Let’s take a look at the primary factors that are driving the growth of the tapioca market.

From low-carb to gluten-free, tapioca has you covered

The popularity of the product stems primarily from its performance as a stabilizer, thickener, and wheat flour replacement. On top of that, tapioca starch’s unique nutritional characteristics, with its low-carb nature, have helped the cassava extract gain a reputation as a “superfood” in countries like India.

As a flavorless thickener, its uses are nearly endless.

The versatility of tapioca starch has proved impressive. As a gluten-free thickening agent, tapioca starch is more commonly used in baby formulas, a market that is growing steadily as the female labor force grows.

Both consumers and farmers are enjoying the tapioca boom.

The first two use cases that boosted tapioca’s popularity were from the consumer’s end. But cassava cultivation is also growing in popularity from the agricultural and supply sides.

Due to the versatility of the crop and the ingredient’s popularity, it’s not difficult to understand why more farmers are choosing to leave the wheat industry behind in favor of cassava.

Increased consumer awareness and the preference for clean-label products are also helping to increase the demand for tapioca. For an ingredient that is popular as both an ingredient in end-products and a staple for kitchens, the future for tapioca seems like it’s rose-colored all the way.

But nothing that good comes without a caveat, now does it?

What is keeping the tapioca industry back?

One of the major aspects holding the tapioca industry back, though, is the presence of cyanide in the extracted product, caused by improper processing or preparation. So no matter how popular tapioca becomes, ineffective screening and a bad reputation continue to be a drawback to the market's potential growth.

In places like Africa, where the cassava root has been a staple in diets for decades, the dangers of undercooked and ill-processed yucca have become common knowledge. However, as demand for tapioca increases, high-volume production often opens up cracks in the production cycle, where quality is sacrificed for quantity.

This is why screening is vital in the tapioca supply chain. We ensure that only top-quality ingredients enter the market through your products and help vendors identify the areas where quality controls weren’t met in order to create a proactive response in following harvests.

Are you ready for the yucca rush?

From tapioca starch to cassava flour, yucca has become an inexorable part of the food industry. And as the tapioca market grows, we’re in for new product use-cases, more reliable quality assurance processes, and a greater supply as more farmers explore the possibilities of cassava. As your ingredient inventory partner, it’s a future we can’t wait to enter with you.

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