Mmmm! You might recognize tapioca as those squishy “pearls” that give tapioca pudding and bubble tea their unique taste and texture. But what exactly is tapioca anyway?
Tapioca doesn’t grow on trees like fruit or in gardens like a vegetable. Instead, it’s a starch that’s made from the root of a plant whose scientific name is Manihot esculenta.
This plant is native to much of South America and the Caribbean, but it is grown worldwide today. The world’s main producers of the plant are Brazil, Nigeria and Thailand.
It goes by many different names around the world. In the United States, it’s commonly called cassava, yuca or simply the tapioca plant. The word tapioca comes from the South American Tupí word — tipi’óka — for the starch.
After cassava plants are harvested, their roots are treated to remove toxins found in the plant. The starch is then processed into one of several popular forms: powder, flakes, sticks or ball-shaped “pearls.” Tapioca pearls are the most popular form.
Tapioca is almost completely free of both protein and gluten. It’s mostly carbohydrate with low amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. It’s a staple food in some areas of the world. People on gluten-free diets often enjoy bread made with tapioca flour.
In addition to tapioca pudding and bubble tea, tapioca is often used as a thickening agent when cooking, especially in soups. Because tapioca does not have a strong taste of its own, it can be added to many dishes to thicken them without changing the taste too much.
The roots of the cassava plant have another interesting use. Besides making tapioca, the plant’s roots can be used to make a substitute for plastic bags that are biodegradable.