What is Cassava Flour
Although cassava flour, in a variety of forms, has been consumed for millennia throughout tropical America and for centuries in Africa and Indonesia, it has only recently come to the attention of Western consumers.
In addition to containing no gluten and no known common allergens, cassava can be substituted ‘cup-for-cup’ in most wheat-based recipes without negatively affecting taste and texture. Perhaps most surprising is its ability to brown and produce a crust when used in baked goods. Amazingly, ‘extensibility’ additives such as xantham and guar gums are not required when using your favourite recipes to create pizza bases, pastry, pasta, gnocchi, flat-bread, crispbread and the like.
Because of the low levels of fats and protein, the shelf-life of cassava flour is typically much longer than other flours. It can be kept for up to two years, and possibly longer, if stored in a container from which the air is expelled and stored in a cool, dark location.
It is no surprise, therefore, that more and more reports on cassava flour are appearing in the media:
- Cassava Flour: The Best Grain-Free Baking Alternative?
- Cassava Is That Gluten-Free Flour You've Never Heard of but Need to Try Today
- Why You Should Love Yuca
- Everything You Should Know About Cassava Flour, the Allergy-Friendly Starch That's Taking Over
- What Is Cassava Flour and How Can You Use It?
What is cassava?
Although relatively unfamiliar to many people in developed countries, cassava is the world’s fourth largest crop, the fifth largest source of carbohydrate calories and the primary source of calories for over half a billion people.
Cassava is a tropical shrub that originated in the Amazon but is now found throughout most tropical countries. The plant is exceptional in its effectiveness in capturing sunlight and carbon dioxide in the production of starch and biomass. The plant also produces very high levels of protein with exceptional bio-availability, most of which is stored in the leaves.
Cassava has been referred to as the Rambo crop (here and here) due to its ability to thrive in depleted soils and areas of low and unreliable rainfall. Cassava is predicted to be one of the few major food crops that will flourish under higher global temperatures and elevated levels of carbon dioxide.
Per kilogram of digestible carbohydrate, cassava requires as little as a quarter of the inputs of water and nutrients of major staples such as corn, wheat, rice and potatoes.
Even when not grown intensively, cassava can produce more than 250,000 calories per hectare per day, compared to 176,000 for rice, 110,000 for wheat and 200,000 for corn.
Is cassava flour the same as tapioca flour and tapioca starch?
No, they are not the same product.
There is a widespread misunderstanding of the distinction between true cassava flour and the more widely known tapioca starch. To add to the confusion, tapioca starch is often marketed as tapioca flour. (You may have noticed the same ambiguity with corn starch being mislabelled as corn flour). The misunderstanding is being exploited by many suppliers of tapioca-containing products.
The upshot is, tapioca, whether starch or ‘flour’, is a highly purified starch derived from the cassava root and as such contain only marginal levels of minerals, vitamins and, most importantly, true dietary fibre. Moreover, tapioca is a high GI carbohydrate which the body rapidly converts into sugar (i.e. glucose). This is a serious consideration for those on calorie-controlled diets or concerned about their blood sugar levels.
Many widely used GF starches and flours - such as white rice flour, potato starch and corn starch - are, like tapioca, generally very low in fibre and important nutrients, and as such are little more than low-cost fillers that just happen to be gluten-free. Many premade GF foods and GF premixes use high levels of low-grade GF flours/starches to cut costs, then add a concoction of artificial additives to achieve the desired taste, texture and functionality.
Perhaps the most important distinction between cassava flour and the tapioca is the level and composition of the dietary fibre. Cassava flour typically contains around 8 to 10% dietary fibre. Tapioca typically contains far less than 1% fibre. Moreover, the fibre in cassava flour is comprised of high levels of the soluble and facultative fractions, notably pectins and hemicelluloses.
Furthermore, in the production of tapioca, sulphur dioxide or sodium metabisulphite are almost always used as whitening and sterilising agents. Some tapioca producers also use oil-based surfactants in their process. Whilst the amount present in the final product is minuscule and generally not of concern, the consumer should be aware of this fact.
Three Spades Cassava Flour is true cassava flour with the only inputs to the flour-making process being fresh cassava roots, water, electricity and lots of physical work.
I am aware that raw cassava contains cyanide. Does Three Spades flour contain cyanide?
The cassava root does indeed contain cyanide in an organic form (cyanogenic glycosides), as do many other widely consumed plant products, most notably almonds, sorghum, bamboo shoots, lima beans and the seeds and kernels of many popular stone fruits.
However, in the case of our flour, after the cassava roots are mashed into a pulp, the level of cyanide is typically non-detectable. Cassava itself contains the enzymes required to break down the cyanogenic glucosides. Mashing into pulp ensures the two are brought in contact with each other, thus eliminating all trace of cyanide.