Tapioca is the popular name for starch prepared from the root of the cassava plant. Cassava's origin is in the north-eastern parts of Brazil but it expanded in time to the entire South American continent. After the Spanish and Portuguese explorers became aware of the plant's uses, they exported it for cultivation to many areas of Asia, Africa and the West Indies. Cassava is a perennial shrub well-suited for tropical regions that can also be cultivated in temperate zones. A big advantage of this plant is that it can grow in a wide range of poor soils.

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Tapioca is a staple food in many tropical countries. In the developed world it is mainly used for industrial purposes, as a thickening agent in processed foods.

The tapioca starch is excellent for this purpose and is commonly used as a thickener in pudding. It is actually so widely used as a food thickener that the name tapioca is now sometimes used as a generic term for such agents, which can be misleading. The only real tapioca is extracted from cassava roots. The roots are toxic in raw form but many cultures have develops various processes in several stages that detoxify the starch. The same principles apply for industrial production today.

Cassava is a South American shrub that is cultivated because its roots are edible and a common staple food. It was extremely important for many South American tribes. Also known as manioc, cassava is actually poisonous in raw form and the toxins in its composition are dangerous when consumed in large quantities. The roots are edible only after the poison is eliminated through various techniques.

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Tapioca is actually named after several words from the Tupi language of Brazil. It is a compound term meaning juice (ty), heart (pya) and remove (oca). As a result, the original Tupi word for it is "tipi'oca" and it actually describes how the root can be prepared as food.

In order to achieve that, you must pulp and wash the roots to separate the starch. Heating the natural starch will cause the granules in its composition to pop and it will turn into a paste. This is easily formed in any desired state, such as pearls, flakes and a powder similar to flour. The flour is readily soluble in warm water, which makes it useful for pudding or jelly, tapioca flakes are used for similar purposes. The tapioca pearls are usually found in pearl milk teas. Tapioca has a very weak taste, so it can be used as a base or thickener in savoury or sweet foods without changing their taste.

Health benefits

Tapioca is not very rich in nutrients but it supplies a considerable amount of iron. Iron is one of the essential minerals required by our body. It plays many roles but it is especially used as one of the building blocks of red blood cells. Tapioca is also rich in copper, which is the second important mineral for blood production, so it can prevent conditions such as anemia by boosting the number of red blood cells. If enough of these cells are available, the flow of blood to organs and extremities is increased, so more oxygen and nutrients reach the cells and allow them to operate properly. This boosts the rate of cell growth and damage repair, as well as providing a significant overall energy boost.

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Tapioca is also one of the best natural option for gaining weight in a healthy way. Even if most people want to lose weight, there are situations when you need to add a few kilograms quickly, for example after surgery. Being too thin can be as dangerous as being too fat but gaining weight by eating unhealthy food is a very bad idea. Tapioca is packed with carbohydrates, a single cup provides almost half of the entire daily human requirement. However, it is free of saturated fats and cholesterol, so it supplies a massive amount of calories without any risk to health. Sucrose makes up most of these carbohydrates but there is also an amount of amylose, which is a more complex sugar molecule. Since tapioca is tasteless and full of calories, it is a great choice for people who need to gain weight fast to recover from illness or simply due to an eating disorder.

Including tapioca in your diet can prevent the birth of children with defects. This is due to the very high content of B-complex vitamins. One of these, folic acid, seems to be extremely beneficial for this purpose. Several studies have concluded that folic acid decreases the risk of neural tube defects.

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Like most vegetal foods, tapioca provides a significant amount of dietary fibers. Fibers are considered to be extremely important for a balanced diet and are known to have numerous health benefits. A diet rich in fibers is especially good for digestion because it provides bulk to the stool. As a result, constipation is prevented because the stool starts moving through the digestive tract. Many other conditions can be avoided as well, from mild ones such as bloating to the potentially lethal colorectal cancer. Fibers also travel through the blood stream and can remove excess cholesterol from the walls of arteries. This is extremely valuable for heart health and can prevent or cure many diseases such as strokes, heart attacks or atherosclerosis.

Another important nutrient found in large amounts in tapioca is protein. We need a lot of proteins in our diets, which are easy to get from meat, fish, dairy or poultry. However, plant protein sources are rare and many vegetarians have a hard time supplying a healthy amount of these nutrients. Proteins have many roles in the body and are the main structural building block of tissues, so a rich source of vegetal protein like tapioca is extremely valuable. It will supply enough proteins for all of the essential daily activities and maintenance, such as muscle growth, bone development, damage healing and many other key processes.

Other nutrients found in generous amounts in tapioca are calcium, iron and vitamin K. This is a complete and powerful package of the most important compounds for bone development. People tend to have a weaker bone structure with age, which leads to osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and other similar diseases. Regularly eating tapioca can thus protect and repair our bones and preserve normal flexibility even at an advanced age.

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Tapioca is very rich in vitamin K, which is not only useful for bone health. It is now known that this vitamin is essential for preserving mental health as well. It stimulates the brain's neural activity, which has been proven to reduce the risk of the incurable Alzheimer's disease. Scientists think that mental stagnation and lack of activity is the main cause of this disease, which can be prevented by vitamin K. Besides keeping the neural links active, this vitamin also protects the tissues from the action of free radicals.

As a great source of potassium, tapioca provides one more required mineral for human health. It is very important for heath conditioning, since it dilates blood vessels and relieves the stress and pressure on them. This makes the cardiovascular system more effective and increases circulation to the body's extremities. Many serious events like heart attacks or strokes are actually caused when the arteries are blocked by blood clots. A good supply of potassium can prevent this, as well as atherosclerosis. A good ratio of potassium and sodium in the body provides the so-called fluid balance, which in turn allows metabolic processes to operate effectively and increase the amount of available energy.

Our body produces energy directly from carbohydrates, by decomposing sucrose and other simple sugars into compounds that can be burned as fuel. Carbohydrates allow us to increase in weight but many foods that have this effect don't actually offer an energy boost, since cholesterol and saturated fats have a negative impact. Tapioca provides carbohydrates, without cholesterol, saturated fats or other unhealthy compounds, so it maintains top energy levels without side effects.

Side effects and cautions

Always remember that cassava is poisonous in raw form. Processed tapioca is safe to consume but the roots must be prepared or cooked the right way, in order to eliminate toxins. Improperly cooked cassava produces cyanide, which is one of the most dangerous poisons around. People from cultures where cassava is an important staple food know how to prepare it in order to remove the poison. Don't try this at home, unless you are guided by someone with experience. It is better to just buy processed tapioca from the store.

It is also a bad idea to include tapioca in your diet if you're trying to lose weight. It is extremely rich in calories and carbohydrates, which will cause the opposite effect.

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