Cassava the Ancient
Also called manioc, the domesticated version of cassava is thought to be a relative of the wild version originating in west-central Brazil. By 1492 when Columbus arrived in America, cassava was already an established staple food in South America and the Caribbean, so no one truly knows how far back in human civilization cassava held a place.
Even though the Spaniards refused cassava in their diet in preference for more “civilized” foods like bread, olive oil and meat when they first occupied the Caribbean, cultivation of manioc continued and flourished. Ironically, cassava bread became the first Spanish industry established in Cuba and was depended upon by ships carrying exports from Cuban ports to Europe, as the bread was more resistant to becoming stale.
Cassava was introduced to Africa in the 16th century and quickly became a staple food. Being a drought-tolerant crop, it can be grown in minimal soil. Nigeria is now the world’s largest producer of cassava.
The cassava plant is actually a shrub that grows from one to three meters in height, but the root is the part that is used as a food source. Resembling a yam, the root is long and covered with a thick, brown rind with flesh that is white or light yellow.
In the Diet
Cassava exists in both sweet and bitter varieties, and each has nutritional benefits and cautions. As cassava contains toxic anti-nutritional factors, improper preparation of cassava can lead to residual cyanide levels high enough to cause cyanide toxicity, goiter and potentially more serious conditions leading to death. Bitter varieties are more likely to cause these effects so they must be processed properly. Sweet varieties are safe for consumption after boiling.
The cassava root is primarily a source of carbohydrates, with a small amount of protein and micro-nutrients. The roots are rich in calcium and vitamin C and contain a significant amount of thiamine, riboflavin and nicotinic acid. While it is low in protein, it does contain respectable levels of all of the essential amino acids except methionine, cysteine and cystine. Cooked cassava starch has a digestibility of over 75 percent, making it a reasonable food source if supplemented properly.
Unless you live in or visit an area where cassava is cultivated, it is unlikely you will consume anything that is made from cassava. Cassava flour is well available in the U.S. and is quickly becoming a popular flour for gluten-free diets as it is the most similar to wheat flour. If you are looking for an easier way to make bread, this is a great option.
Cassava sweetener is a very recent addition on the market. It is produced from the cassava root like other cassava products, and enzymes are used to yield a liquid sweetener. Calorically, it is very close to that of table sugar, but without the fructose. It can be used as a replacement for sugar in any use.
Why You Will Love Cassava
If you prefer the taste of sugar over lo calorie or no calorie sweeteners, but worry about the fructose, cassava is your answer! It is the only natural sweetener that does not contain fructose but still retains that sweet-like-sugar taste.
Fructose is a simple sugar that joins with glucose to make sucrose, or table sugar. It also comprises either 42% or 55% of high fructose corn syrup, depending on its desired composition during manufacturing. These two sweeteners are the predominant sweeteners on the market today.
Fructose is not inherently bad, as it is the sugar that makes fruit sweet. It has become a dietary concern because of the amount that many consume as a food additive. If you are a regular consumer of soda, candy, or packaged foods it is a guarantee that you will find sugar or high fructose corn syrup, or both, on the label.
Consumption of large amount of fructose can damage your health in several ways:
- Fructose is the preferred food source of cancer cells. The human body is built with cellular processes that work all day, every day to kill cells that have the potential to become cancerous. The less fructose there is available for these cells to use as energy, the less likely they are to become problematic and the easier it will be for the body to continue its management of these cells.
- The liver suffers a great deal when fructose is ingested. The liver is the only organ than can metabolize fructose, and if you consume large amounts this puts a great strain on this important organ. The higher the consumption of fructose, the more the liver has to work at metabolizing it and the less time it can spend on other important functions like detoxifying the blood, making bile, and making other important blood proteins like immune and clotting factors.
- This metabolism creates many waste products, one of which is uric acid, that causes gout and can raise blood pressure.
- Because fructose cannot be used as an energy source, ALL OF IT is automatically stored as fat or fat precursors: free fatty acids, VLDL’s and triglycerides. The latter two you may recognize as numbers on your lab report that need to be kept low for health concerns.
- Fructose does not suppress the hunger hormone ghrelin or stimulate leptin, as glucose does, so you overeat. Is this possibly why we have an obesity epidemic in America?
Cassava is currently undergoing a field trial in East and Central Africa that began in 2015. This field trial is testing a virus-resistant variety due to the declining yields of the crop due to the black streak virus. The country has tabled the decision to allow the crop to continue being grown until further notice.
Even if for research, the introduction of GM cassava has opened the door for the possibility of it spreading even if Africa chooses not to allow it to be grown. As we all know, once the possibility is there, the likelihood of it being used increases.
Read my GMO Free Cassaav Products Review blog to find cassava products!