Health Benefits of Cassava
Highly Nutritious but Can Be Toxic When Eaten Raw
Medically reviewed by Melissa Nieves, LND, RD
Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a tuberous root vegetable. It is also known as manioc, yuca, or mandioca and is native to South America. The root vegetable tastes similar to other starchy vegetables, such as yams and sweet potatoes, and is described as earthy, nutty, and either slightly bitter or sweet, depending on the type.
Eating this vegetable provides many health benefits because of the vitamins and minerals it contains. One of the most notable is resistant starch, which aids in digestion and gut and metabolic health. This article discusses the health benefits of cassava, how to eat it, and the risks associated with consuming the vegetable raw.
What Are the Nutritional Benefits of Cassava?
Cassava contains high levels of vitamins and nutrients that provide various health benefits.
While the root vegetable is similar to various types of potatoes, it is not the same. The differences stem from its plant compounds, nutrients, and calorie content.
Cassava Nutritional Information
Serving Size: 100 Grams (g)
Because of its high nutritional content, cassava can benefit your health in the following ways:
Cassava contains resistant starch, a carbohydrate that cannot be fully digested. When consumed, resistant starches bypass digestion in the small intestines. Once they reach the large intestine, they ferment and act as prebiotics in the gut.
Prebiotics are used as a food source for the collection of microorganisms that live in the gut, known as the microbiome. Because they feed good bacteria, prebiotics are vital in maintaining balance within gut organisms and promoting overall health.
Resistant starches can also help maintain or improve metabolic health, which is how the body uses food as an energy source. People with optimal metabolic health have appropriate levels of sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides in the body and a healthy weight.
Research has shown that, when consumed regularly, cassava can help to improve these metabolic parameters and may aid in reducing the risk of developing metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Regarding type 2 diabetes, resistant starch can increase the body’s insulin sensitivity, allowing for better blood sugar management. Cassava may also reduce the risk of obesity, but more research is needed.
Since cassava contains high levels of vitamin C, consuming it regularly can improve the functioning of the immune system. Vitamin C stimulates the movement of specific immune cells, known as neutrophils, to the area in the body that contains a harmful pathogen.
Vitamin C has other immune benefits, including:
Enhancing phagocytosis, which is the process white blood cells perform to destroy and remove harmful substances from the body
Destroying harmful microbes
Protecting tissues from damage caused by infections
The immune system is better equipped to fight infection and illness when the body has enough vitamin C.
Bone, Skin, Muscle, and Joint Health
Your bones, skin, muscles, and joints require the protein collagen to keep them healthy. As people age, collagen production decreases, leading to bone loss, joint pain, wrinkles and dry skin, and loss of muscle mass. However, eating foods with the proper nutrients can help restore some collagen and inhibit the effects of aging.
Cassava can aid in bone, skin, muscle, and joint health. Its high levels of vitamin C increase the body’s natural ability to produce collagen by turning on specific genes that signal the body to do so.
Cassava contains anti-inflammatory properties due to its high vitamin C content. When eaten regularly, cassava's vitamin C content can help lower inflammation by reducing the risk of oxidative stress. It does this by providing antioxidants that can balance out free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can cause damage if too many roam freely within the body. Antioxidants help to stabilize the molecules, essentially neutralizing their ability to cause harm.
The human brain requires several nutrients to function correctly. One such mineral, copper, is vital for brain health because it plays a role in neurotransmission. Neurotransmission is the communication pathway between brain cells (neurons).
Copper also aids in the activation of neuropeptides, which are chemical messengers. Cassava contains a decent level of copper, thus, can help improve brain health and neuropathways.
While copper can help with brain health, it also aids in:
The production of energy
Production and maintenance of connective tissues and blood vessels
The function of the immune and nervous systems
Forms of Cassava and Preparation Methods
There are many types of cassava, but they can be broken up into two categories: sweet and bitter. Choosing which one fits into your diet depends on your personal flavor preferences. Regardless of the type, there are specific ways that the vegetable needs to be prepared.
The Wetting Method
The first method is referred to as the wetting method and consists of the following steps:
Peel, chop and grind the vegetable into a flour
Put the flour into a bowl and mark where the flour tops out
Add water to the mixture and mix, the level will drop and then rise again to where it was initially marked
Once at this level, spread it into a thin layer a centimeter thick or less
Leave for five hours in the shade or two hours in the sun
Once ready, the flour can be cooked in boiling water
Other Safe Preparation Techniques
There are two other safe preparation methods, both of which involve soaking the vegetable. The first method calls for soaking the cassava roots for six days, followed by grating and fermenting for four days.
The second soaking method requires the vegetable to be soaked in water for three days, followed by three days of drying. After the six-day process is complete, cassava can be cooked through boiling, frying, or baking.
Risks of Raw or Ill-Prepared Cassava
The reason why the cooking methods are so intricate is that cassava contains cyanogenic glycosides. These compounds release cyanide when consumed, which can lead to cyanide poisoning and the accompanying adverse health effects such as:
Chest pain and tightness
Eye pain or tearing
Excitement or restlessness
Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
Rapid or slow heart rate or breathing
Nausea or vomiting
Dangerously high or low blood pressure
Loss of consciousness
When consuming cassava, it’s crucial to prepare it properly.
If prepared correctly, cassava is safe to eat. However, consuming only two cassava roots can lead to cyanide poisoning if eaten raw or when not being prepared properly. People with poor diets are more likely to feel these effects.
Cassava is a highly nutritious tuber root vegetable that can be deadly if not prepared correctly. Because of that, eating cassava requires a certain level of skill when it comes to preparation. If you incorporate it into your diet, cassava can aid in various aspects of health, including brain, immune, and metabolic health; digestion and gut balance; and the health of bones, skin, muscles, and joints.