The Health Benefits of Cassava

This staple root vegetable may help control diabetes and diarrhea

Cassava in two forms

Rodrigo Ruiz Ciancia / Getty Images 

Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a root vegetable used for both culinary purposes and in folk medicines. Cassava is an important tuber crop (alongside potatoes and yams) and one of the most important sources of carbohydrate in the developing world.

Used to make tapioca, animal feed, and even laundry starch, cassava is thought by to improve health by boosting immunity and regulating digestion. The root of the plant is rich in vitamin C, while the leaves contain beta-carotene, lysine, and other compounds beneficial to the skin and metabolism.

Cassava is commonly referred to as yuca in the United States but should not be mistaken for the spiky yucca plant used for gardens and folk medicine.

Also Known As

  • Aipim (Portuguese)
  • "Bread of the Tropics"
  • Brazilian arrowroot
  • Garri (West Africa)
  • Macaxeira (Northeast Brazil)
  • Mandioca
  • Manioc
  • Simla alu (Hindi)
  • Tapioca plant

Health Benefits

As a staple food of many countries—from South America and India to Indonesia and West Africa—cassava is an important source of carbohydrates but an otherwise poor source of protein and essential nutrients. However, it does contain compounds believed to be anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, including phenolic acids, anthraquinones, saponins, and alkaloids.

Alternative practitioners believe that these properties can aid in the treatment or prevention of certain health conditions, including:

  • Arthritis 
  • Cancer
  • Dandruff
  • Diabetes
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • Infertility
  • Prolonged labor
  • Skin infections

Some of the claims are better supported by research than others. A few, like cancer, have been soundly disproven. According to the American Cancer Society, "there is no convincing scientific evidence that cassava or tapioca is effective in preventing or treating cancer."

The same holds true of cassava's use as a fertility aid. Although it is often suggested that cassava promotes ovulation (even increasing the likelihood of twins), the evidence is at best anecdotal. Although cassava contains phytoestrogens and folic acid, both of which can enhance fertility, there are plenty of other foods that are far richer sources.

Despite these shortcomings, there is evidence that cassava may offer benefits beyond their nutritional value.

Diabetes

Cassava is a cellulose-rich insoluble fiber. This is a type of dietary fiber that aids in digestion and helps prevent constipation and diverticular diseases. It is also believed to be a prebiotic, a type of fiber that promotes the growth of probiotic bacteria as it ferments in the intestines.

There is some evidence that this effect can increase metabolism and the speed by which blood sugar is cleared from the blood (a process referred to as glucose tolerance). In addition, cassava has a glycemic index of 46, a value that is far lower than other starchy foods.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Nutrition and Human Health reported that 40 adults fed 360 grams of cooked cassava prior to a meal experience improved glucose tolerance and glycemic control. This was especially true of cassava that had been fortified with vitamin A.

Whether the same would occur with cassava supplements is unclear.

Diarrhea

Despite cassava's ability to ease constipation, a 2015 study in the Journal of Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine suggests that an alcohol-based cassava leaf extract can also treat occasional diarrhea.

For this study, lab mice with induced diarrhea were given either an oral dose of the cassava leaf extract or one of two antidiarrheal drugs (loperamide or atropine sulfate). According to the researchers, mice given cassava achieved the same relief of symptoms as those prescribed loperamide. At higher doses, the cassava extract was seen to comparable to atropine sulfate by slowing intestinal motility.

Further research is needed to see if the same effects can be achieved in humans.

Possible Side Effects

Cassava can be a nutritious part of a balanced diet, but it does pose health risks. This is especially true if it is eaten raw or undercooked, both of which may cause cyanide poisoning.

Cassava contains a type of sugar molecule called cyanogenic glycosides. These are converted by the body into cyanide when eaten. While cooking the root reduces the cyanogenic content to acceptable levels, inadequate cooking can lead to an increased risk of poisoning.

Signs of cyanide poisoning nausea, weakness, headache, difficulty breathing, and confusion. In severe cases, seizures, loss of consciousness, or cardiac arrest may occur. The risk is even greater in children due to their smaller body size.

Cassava supplements pose little to no risk of cyanide poisoning due to the commercial processing of the plant or root. With that being said, cassava supplements may cause stomach upset, bitter taste, nausea, and vomiting in some.

Cassava may affect thyroid function, particularly during pregnancy, although generally not to levels considered problematic. The same may not hold true for pregnant women with underlying thyroid disease in whom cassava or cassava supplements may cause hypothyroid symptoms.

Because phytoestrogens in cassava can be passed through breast milk, cassava should not be consumed while breastfeeding. Doing so may affect the nursing infant's thyroid function.

Cassava or cassava supplements are not known to interact with other medications.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage 

Cassava supplements are available online and in many drugstores and nutritional supplements shops. A great many of these are marketed as fertility supplements, some of which are formulated with multiple ingredients (such as folic acid).

When buying a cassava supplement, check the product label to ensure you are getting Manihot esculenta and not a yucca species (such as Yucca guatemalensis or Yucca glauca). Some manufacturers will label their products "yucca" rather than the correct term "yuca," causing confusion.

To ensure quality and safety, opt for supplements that have been voluntarily submitted for testing by an independent certifying body like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International. Brands certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) further reduce your risk of exposure to unwanted chemicals and pesticides.

If buying fresh cassava at the grocery store, break off the end of the root to check the color. It should have a snowy white center and a fresh radish-y scent. Avoid cassava that is soft, has a mildewy smell, or is covered with blemishes.

Fresh unpeeled cassava can be kept in a cool, dry room for up to a week. Once peeled, cassava should be stored in the refrigerator for up four days and up to a year in the freezer.

Other Questions

How do you prepare fresh cassava?

The first rule when preparing cassava is to always peel the root. The skin contains some of the highest concentrations of cyanogenic glycosides. Moreover, it is tough, bitter-tasting, and of little culinary value.

Vegetable peelers are rarely effective in removing the bark-like skin. A paring knife and cutting board are far more useful. To peel fresh cassava:

  1. Cut off the ends of the tuber.
  2. Cut the root into four-inch sections.
  3. Take one section and stand it on its end on the cutting board.
  4. Holding the knife in one hand, press the top of the root with the other hand to hold it steady.
  5. Pare off pieces of skin of the by slicing down from the top of the root to the cutting board.
  6. Keep turning the root and slicing until all of the skin has been removed.

The root can then be cut into wedges to make yuca fries or boiled for 25 to 30 minutes to make a simple yuca mash.

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Article Sources

  1. Montagnac JA, Davis CR, Tanumihardjo SA. Nutritional Value of Cassava for Use as a Staple Food and Recent Advances for Improvement. Comp Rev Food Sci Food Safety. 2009;8(3):181-94. doi:10.1111/j.1541-4337.2009.00077.x.

  2. American Cancer Society. (2000) American Cancer Society's Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods. Atlanta, Georgia: American Cancer Society.

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