Cassava or Manihot esculenta is an extensively cultivated crop in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Recently, numerous studies have unveiled the therapeutic uses of this wonderful root tuber that most people regarded as a poor man’s food. Some of these benefits include aiding digestion, lowering blood cholesterol, lowering blood sugar, preventing cancer, and boosting immunity.
Botanical names: Manihot esculenta, Manihot utilissima
Other names: Manioc, Yuca, Mandioca, Brazilian arrowroot
Cassava is the tuber of cassava plant, Manihot esculenta, which is grown in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, America, and Asia. It is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics, just after rice and maize. Also, it is the major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for over 500 million people.
Tapioca is the flour obtained from cassava. The content of this flour becomes changed, as the carbohydrates which are formed mainly of starch increases to about 88%. However, the protein and fat content remains somehow unchanged. Tapioca can be eaten when cooked with milk or vegetable broth. It is easily digested and provides great amounts of calories.
As of 2014, Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava. It is followed by Thailand, Indonesia, and Brazil.
Uses of Cassava
- Cassava must be cooked properly before it can be eaten. This is due to the cyanide compounds it contains.
- It can be eaten boiled, steamed, or fried.
- It can also be made into a flour, which can be used to make cookies, breads, and cakes.
- In Brazil, ground cassava is cooked to a hard, dry or crunchy meal known as farofa.
- In West Africa, cassava is popularly processed into garri, which can be eaten soaked in cold water along with groundnut or in boiled water to form Eba.
- Apart from culinary applications, cassava is used industrially for the production of alcoholic beverages and starch.
- Cassava also has a long history of use in medicine. Its root has been widely promoted as a treatment for bladder conditions. Folk healers apply its roots directly to the skin to speed up the healing of wounds and sores. In herbal remedies, cassava is also used to fight infertility and prevent cancer.
As the case with yam, cassava is also very rich in carbohydrates, representing about 38% of its total content. It contains minerals and vitamins in significant amounts, standing out are B group vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. However, cassava does not contain provitamin A, and also has very little fat content.
Cassava, just like other foods, also has some antinutritional factors. Worth mentioning is the cyanide compounds it contain which are toxic to the human body, These compounds can cause cyanide intoxification, partial paralysis, goiters, or even death. This is the reason why cassava must be properly processed before consumption, since most of the cyanide content can be lost during the process of preparation.
8 Medicinal uses of cassava
- Aids digestion due to its fiber content
- Relieves constipation
- May prevent cancerous growths
- Promotes skin health
- Lowers level of bad cholesterol
- Manages celiac disease
- Provides great amounts of energy
- Boosts the immune system
Tapioca flour is an excellent emollient and protector of the digestive tract lining or mucosa. It retains a great amount of water due to its soluble fiber content. Its consumption may be beneficial against excess stomach acid, gastritis, and colitis. The fiber in cassava can improve the secretion of digestive enzymes and enhance the growth of beneficial gut flora, which are both necessary for a proper digestion of food particles.
The fiber content of cassava can help relieve constipation. Fiber enhances the peristaltic action of the gut, which is necessary in passing stool down the colon. It also add some bulk to the stool – this also makes defecating easier.
Cassava is rich in antioxidants which can help prevent cancer. Antioxidants help fight the activities of free radicals in our bodies, whose interaction with body cells can cause cancerous growths. Some of these antioxidants contained in cassava include vitamin C and saponins. Several researches have proven the anti-cancer effect of saponins. This compounds in combination with conventional tumor treatment strategies results in an improved therapeutic success (1).
Promotes skin health
Cassava is significantly rich in vitamin C, a vitamin that has been proven to have beneficial effects on the skin. It can help fight skin aging, dryness, and wrinkle formation. This is in addition to its antioxidant capacity, which is important in preventing skin cancer.
Saponin content of cassava can help bind to cholesterol, and stop them from being absorbed in the intestine. Also, cassava is significantly rich in dietary fiber, which can help absorb and eliminate excess cholesterol from the stomach. Excess cholesterol is not good at all to our cardiovascular health. It can clump in our arteries and act as prerequisites to the occurrence of heart attack and stroke.
To validate the claims above, a research was carried out in 2013, which evaluated the effect of sweet potato and cassava on blood cholesterol profile (2). The results found the both cassava and sweet potato to increase HLD or beneficial cholesterol level and also decrease LDL or bad cholesterol level. The research showed some potentials in the intake of these tubers, as they can prevent the risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, and even type 2 diabetes.
The consumption of this root tuber can be tolerated by celiac disease patients since it contains no gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Celiac disease patients are allergic to gluten, as it can cause damage to the lining of their small intestines. This makes all people suffering from this disorder to be restricted in terms of diet, as the mainstay treatment is eating strictly gluten-free foods. This also leaves sufferers of this disease with a limited choice of food, and must embrace foods that lack gluten.
The consumption of tapioca may be beneficial for those just recovering from a serious debilitating disease or even long periods of fasting. This is because it provides great amounts of energy within a short period of time.
Among all major staple foods, cassava is the second richest in vitamin C. This vitamin boosts our immunity by stimulating the production of white blood cells, whose activities defends our body from invading and harmful microorganisms like viruses and bacteria. This is in addition to its antioxidant property, which is important in fighting the activities of harmful free radicals.