What is cassava?
Cassava is a tropical shrub that originated in the Amazon region of South America. The plant is exceptional in its ability to capture sunlight and carbon dioxide and convert and store them as starch and biomass, while also producing very high levels of protein. 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.
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 up to 1 billion people, half of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Cassava has been referred to as the Rambo crop due to its ability to tolerate depleted soils and areas of low and unreliable rainfall. Cassava is believed to be one of the few major food crops expected to thrive under the higher temperatures and the elevated levels of carbon dioxide anticipated as a consequence of climate change.
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, to put it bluntly, being exploited by many manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and retailers of tapioca-containing products.
I believe this article neatly clarifies the distinction between cassava flour and tapioca starch. The upshot is tapioca – starch and flour – is a highly refined starch extracted from the cassava root, and as such contains only trace amounts of minerals, vitamins and, most importantly, true dietary fibre.
Tapioca starch/flour 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 and those with diabetics.
Many commodity-type starches and flours - such as white rice flour, potato starch and corn starch - are, like tapioca starch/flour, generally very low in fibre and 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, and must then add numerous chemical additives to achieve the desired taste, appearance and functionality.
The most important difference between cassava flour and the tapioca products is, however, the level and composition of the dietary fibre. Cassava flour typically contains around 8 to 10% dietary fibre.
Moreover, the fibre in cassava flour is rich in the soluble and fermentable fractions, notably pectins and hemicelluloses.
Tapioca starch/flour, by contrast, contains less than 0.5% total dietary fibre and typically less than 0.2%.
Furthermore, in the production of tapioca starch/flour, 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.
Consumers should also be aware that 100% of the tapioca starch consumed in Australia is imported, almost exclusively from Thailand. That is, there are no tapioca producers in Australia. There are no potato flour producers in Australia and domestic production of corn (maize) starch and potato starch is also relatively small.
Three Spades Cassava Flour is true cassava flour; grown and milled entirely in Australia with the only inputs to the flour-making process being: (1) fresh cassava roots, (2) water, (3) sunshine, (4) electricity and, (5) loads 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 common foods, 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, virtually all the cyanide is eliminated when the root is ground and then air-dried in the flour-making process. (Cassava contains the enzymes required to break down cyanogenic glucosides. Grinding ensures the two are brought in contact with each other).
Under the guidelines of Food Standards Australia & New Zealand, foods cannot contain more than 10ppm (10mg/kg) hydrocyanic acid (hydrogen cyanide).
The cyanide content of Three Spades Cassava Flour is routinely tested by the team headed by Associate Professor Ros Gleadow at the Monash University School of Biological Science, a world leader in the study of plant cyanogenics. Professor Gleadow has been advising Three Spades since the establishment of its North Queensland operations.