What Is Tapioca? Benefits, Uses, and Recipes

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 23, 2023
5 min read

Tapioca is starch obtained from the root of cassava, a plant that mostly grows underground (like a potato). In many parts of the world, it's a food staple. Cassava is a native vegetable of South America and grows in tropical and subtropical regions. It's a source of daily nutrition for millions of people around the globe and has become a popular swap for wheat flour in gluten-free baking. You can find tapioca starch (also called tapioca flour) in the gluten-free section of grocery and health food stores.

Cassava, also known as yucca or manioc, has long, thick roots. The outside looks like it's covered with bark, while the inside looks like a potato.

If you were to peel, dry, and grind an entire cassava root, you'd make cassava flour. Tapioca is different. It's made by washing and squeezing cassava root. The starchy pulp that results from that special process is tapioca.

Different forms of tapioca you can buy include:

Tapioca meal: Also called tapioca flour, it's made with ground dehydrated pulp from the cassava root. Tapioca flour has a neutral flavor, which is one reason it's a favorite of bakers.

Tapioca flakes: Sometimes called minute or instant tapioca, these tiny flakes dissolve quickly in hot liquids. You can use tapioca flakes instead of cornstarch or flour to thicken soups or pie filling.

Tapioca syrup: When certain enzymes are added to cassava root, a sweet syrup is made.

If tapioca isn't already in your pantry, here's what else you might want to know.

What's tapioca flour used for?

Tapioca flour has a lot of other uses, especially in other cultures. It's used as a binder and thickener, in both desserts and savory dishes. It's also used to add a chewy moist texture to breads.

Tapioca flour vs. starch

Tapioca flour and tapioca starch are the same thing. Cornstarch is differentit comes from corn kernels.

You can swap out tapioca flour and cornstarch, but it helps to know how they're different:

  • Cornstarch thickens liquids at high temperatures, so you need to add it during the cooking process. Tapioca flour thickens at low temperatures, so it's best to add it to room-temperature liquids.
  • Tapioca flour makes sauces shiny and see-through. Cornstarch makes them so thick that you can't see through them.
  • Cornstarch doesn't freeze well. It gets gummy. Tapioca is a better choice when you plan to freeze a gravy, sauce, or soup.

Is tapioca gluten-free or vegan?

Tapioca's naturally free of gluten, a protein found in wheat and some other grains. But check the label of the brand you buy. Some kinds could be processed in a facility with products that do contain gluten.

Because tapioca flour is plant-based and doesn't contain any animal products, it's a good fit for a vegan diet.

Tapioca flour substitute

You can sub tapioca flour for many common baking ingredients. For instance:

  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch = 2 tablespoons tapioca flour
  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour = 1 cup of tapioca flour
  • 1 tablespoon quick-cooking tapioca pearls = 1 tablespoon tapioca flour

If you've eaten tapioca pudding, then you've probably had tapioca pearls. They're made from little pellets of tapioca flour that become chewy and creamy when cooked. They're also called sago or sabudana.

Tapioca pearls can vary in size from 1-8 millimeters. They're naturally cream-colored, although you can dye them different colors. To cook with this type of tapioca, you'll need to soak them first, then boil them. That gives them their famous gel-like texture.

Tapioca bubble tea

Bubble (boba) tea first became popular in Asia in the 1990s. Big tapioca balls, called boba, are dropped into sweetened milky teas, smoothies, or other drinks that are served hot or cold. You drink them with a straw that's wide enough for the boba to fit through.

Traditional boba is made from tapioca starch, brown sugar, and sweet potato.

Tapioca starch contains no fat or cholesterol. It's also very low in sodium.

One serving contains 20 milligrams of calcium and 1.6 milligrams of iron.

Nutrients per serving

A 1/4 cup serving of tapioca starch contains:

  • Calories: 100
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Fat: 0 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 26 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams

Things to watch out for

Tapioca starch has a high glycemic index. That means it can cause a quick spike in your insulin and blood sugar, and should be eaten in moderate amounts. Some popular tapioca items, such as tapioca pudding and boba tea, are often high in added sugars as well. For instance, one study found that a 16-oz boba drink contained 299 calories and 38 grams of sugar. Diets high in added sugar have been linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and gout.

Tapioca is mostly carbohydrates. It contains only small amounts of minerals that your body needs to stay healthy. For example, one cup of dry tapioca pearls contains just over 30 milligrams of calcium, which helps keep your bones strong and prevent osteoporosis. Guidelines suggest that you need 1,000-1,200 milligrams of calcium every day, so tapioca isn't a great source.

But tapioca does have a few health benefits, mostly because of what it lacks. For instance:

It's low in allergens.

You won't find any common allergens such as nuts, grains, and coconut.

It's easy on your gut.

Tapioca starch is gluten-free, so it's a good choice if you have celiac disease. It's also easy to digest because it's low in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), a type of carbohydrate that's hard for your gut to process.

It's a heart-healthy choice.

Tapioca contains no saturated fat. Reducing saturated fat has been found to lower your risk of heart disease

It may lower insulin levels.

Modified tapioca starch (tapioca starch that has been processed in a special way) may help lower insulin levels. In one early study, diabetic mice on high-fat diets were given modified tapioca starch. Mice that received tapioca starch showed much lower insulin resistance than those that didn't. However, much more research is needed to see if the same benefits apply to people with diabetes.

Raw cassava root naturally contains cyanide, a chemical compound that's toxic to humans. In the U.S., the tapioca you eat still contains cyanide, but in trace amounts that shouldn't harm you.

Still, it's good to be aware. Remember to enjoy any form of tapioca in moderate amounts. High levels of cyanide can damage your brain and heart and be life-threatening. While cyanide hasn't been linked to birth defects, it could raise your baby's risk of thyroid disease.

You can use tapioca to

  • Make a hot or cold tapioca pudding.
  • Bake chewy, moist Brazilian cheese bread (pão de queijo).
  • Cook sabudana khichdi, an Indian dish that combines tapioca pearls with roasted peanuts, potatoes, and spices.
  • Prepare Che Chuoi, a traditional Vietnamese dessert of warm bananas, coconut milk, and tapioca pearls.
  • Thicken gravies, sauces, soups, jellies, fresh pie fillings, and homemade ice cream.
  • Dredge fish, chicken, or vegetables instead of using all-purpose wheat flour.
  • Replace corn starch or arrowroot in recipes.