What is tapioca flour?
Native to South America, tapioca flour is made by crushing a tuber called ‘cassava root’ and dehydrating it into a fine powder.
Granulated tapioca powder has a slightly sweet flavour with a starchiness that’s especially good for thickening sauces, soups, pie fillings, dips and puddings.
You’ll find it in gluten-free and grain-free baking recipes as an alternative to regular wheat flour. This is because it lends a springy texture to bakes, as well as making crusts crispy and promoting browning.
It is perhaps most popular for its use in the Brazilian treats:
- Pão de Queijo, a puffy, light cheese roll
- Tapioca (manioc) crêpes, a popular street food with both sweet and savoury fillings
- Tapioca flour is made from ground cassava root
- It’s gluten-free and grain-free
- Use it in baking for springy, crusty bakes
How is tapioca flour made?
First, a cassava root has to be peeled, washed, chopped and then shredded.
The shredded mixture is then washed and spun repeatedly until the mixture is just water and pure starch.
Then, the starch is allowed to dry out and form a fine tapioca starch or flour.
Tapioca flour vs starch: Is tapioca flour the same as tapioca starch?
There is no ‘tapioca flour vs starch’ as they are the same thing.
However, there is another product called cassava flour that is often mistaken for tapioca flour. The two are similar, but not the same.
Cassava flour is made from the whole cassava root, rather than just the starchy pulp that tapioca flour is made from.
It simply does not work the same as tapioca flour, so make sure you find something that clearly states it is tapioca flour or tapioca starch.
- Yes, tapioca flour and tapioca starch are almost always the same thing
- Cassava flour is similar, but not the same
Why is tapioca flour used? 8 top uses
There are many uses for tapioca flour, here are the 8 top uses of it:
- Perfect for grain- and gluten-free diets
One of the most popular reasons people use tapioca flour is because they are avoiding products containing gluten and grains.
- Suitable for the paleo diet
Although many paleo recipes tend to use coconut flour and almond flour, tapioca flour can also be used to substitute regular wheat flour in baking
As it is quite high in carbohydrates, it’s recommended that you use it in combination with other paleo flours in baking – which is no bad thing, as this way you get to enjoy the benefits of each.
- Great for baking
Tapioca flour is great for bakes that need a light texture, as it is said to help make your bakes nice and springy, with browned, crispy crusts.
As we mentioned above, it is also particularly famous for its use in the Brazilian bake Pão de Queijo, which are little soft, squidgy, bread rolls filled with cheese.
- Can really thicken things up
With its neutral flavour and thickening power, tapioca flour is perfect for improving the consistency of soups, gravies, sauces, pie fillings, dips, and desserts like angel food cake.
- Used to make bubble tea ‘bubbles’
Bubble tea is a popular Taiwanese drink that has proven very popular here in the UK, as well as worldwide.
This fun drink is made by blending a tea base with milk, fruit, fruit juices and then adding its namesake – bubbles!
These chewy bubbles, aka boba, are usually made with just tapioca flour and water, so you could even have a go at making them at home!
- A natural source of resistant starch
Tapioca is full of resistant starch, a substance that functions a bit like soluble fibre.
As the name suggests, this starch is resistant to digestion and can be transported to our gut without being broken down. Once it’s there, it can be consumed by the ‘friendly’ bacteria and help support our microbiome.
- Makes a mean flatbread or pancake
Due to its lower cost in some parts of the world, tapioca flour is mixed with water and used to make flat breads and pancakes, which are then filled with savoury / sweet toppings.
- Can help bind some foods together
When used in processed foods like burgers, nuggets and dough, it can help to bind ingredients together. It can also help prevent sogginess by trapping moisture in a gel-like form in these foods.
- Tapioca flour is considered paleo-friendly
- Combine with coconut or almond flour for best results
- Swap wheat flour for tapioca flour for baking
- It makes bakes springy and light inside, but crispy outside
- The bubbles in Taiwanese bubble tea are made from tapioca starch
- Tapioca is naturally rich in resistant starch
- Resistant starch can feed our microbiome
How does tapioca flour compare to normal wheat flour?
Wondering how tapioca flour fares in comparison to the much more popular wheat flour? Let’s start by comparing some of their nutritional data.
Nutritional values per 100g tapioca flour1 and 100g plain wheat flour:2
|Calories||Total fat||Saturated fat||Total
As you can see, tapioca flour and regular wheat flour are pretty similar when it comes to nutrition.
The starkest difference between the two is their protein and fat content. Tapioca flour is pure carbs, whereas wheat flour contains protein and some fat.
However, while tapioca flour’s reduced protein content may be considered negative, it is actually one of the reasons for its popularity in the gluten-free world.
Gluten is a protein that some people’s bodies can’t digest, which is why they may be relieved to discover that tapioca flour has no protein.
On the contrary, if your body digests gluten normally, then there’s no reason to use gluten-free flours like tapioca flour for gluten content alone – it is a source of protein after all.
Putting nutrition and food intolerances to the side for a second, some people choose to use tapioca flour over wheat flour for the benefits we have already discussed above, like certain bakes and bubble tea.
- Wheat flour has more protein and fat
- Tapioca flour is naturally gluten-free and grain-free
- Wheat flour is more nutritionally dense
Is tapioca good for you?
Tapioca flour is almost pure starch and is therefore full of carbohydrates.
As you can see above, it contains minimal fat, protein and fibre, so from a nutritional standpoint it may not be as good for you as other grains and flours.
However, if you are intolerant to wheat or find life better on a gluten-free diet, tapioca flour can help you enjoy the foods you miss, like bread, biscuits and cake.
Tapioca flour has lots of other benefits, like thickening soups and gives bakes a crisp texture, so it’s not all about the health benefits.
- Tapioca is not as nutritiously dense as other flours
- If you are intolerant or allergic to gluten, it can be a good alternative
Want to give tapioca a try?
- Certified gluten-free
- Grain free
- Paleo friendly
Quick and easy tapioca recipes
Here’s a couple of tasty tapioca recipes you can give a whirl:
Another wonderful creation we have Brazil to thank for! Tapioca crêpes are a common street food, and for good reason.
Tapioca flour provides a tasty and gluten-free way to enjoy both sweet and savoury pancakes. Here’s how:
Makes approx. 3 tapioca crêpes
- 320g tapioca flour
- Salt to taste
- Ingredients for filling
- Combine tapioca flour with water – the water level should be an inch or so above.
- Cover the container and leave in the fridge for 1 hour
- Discard the water and place a clean tea towel on top of the starch so it can absorb excess moisture.
- Strain the tapioca in a sieve and add salt.
- Heat up a frying pan and put 2-3 tablespoons of the tapioca mixture across the bottom.
- Spread and even up the tapioca flour using the back of a spoon.
- Allow to cook for a few minutes until it becomes solid underneath.
- Then add cheese, butter, nut butter, grated coconut, condensed milk, fruit, toffee, chocolate, spinach – whatever floats your boat.
- Fold over the tapioca crêpe and press the edges to seal it.
- Let it cook for a minute or so and serve immediately, otherwise it can develop a rubbery texture.
Pão de Queijo
These squidgy, light, cheesy bread balls are a Brazilian classic, and surprisingly easy to make!
Makes approx. 12 balls
- 125ml whole milk
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- 125g tapioca flour
- 1 egg
- 60g cheese (think Monterey Jacks, like gouda)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 200°C.
- Bring milk, oil and butter to the boil.
- Combine tapioca flour, salt and pepper in the bowl of a stand mixer.
- Pour in the hot milk and mix on a low setting until it is smooth, soft and stringy.
- Line a baking tray with parchment paper and scoop the dough out into 12 balls.
- Once the mixture is cool to the touch, add in the eggs one at a time until combined, followed by the cheese.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes until puffed and lightly golden in colour on the outside and soft set on the inside.
Are there any tapioca starch side effects?
On the whole, tapioca starch doesn’t tend to negatively affect people, unless is isn’t processed properly.
Cassava products processed incorrectly could cause poisoning
Cassava root naturally contains linamarin – a toxic compound that is converted into hydrogen cyanide in the human body.
Eating improperly processed cassava root products could lead to cyanide poisoning, konzo (a paralytic disease), and even sometimes death in extreme circumstances.3,4
However, if you buy commercially produced tapioca flour, it will have gone through processing to make sure it does not contain harmful amounts of linamarin and is safe to consume.
One cannot survive on tapioca starch alone
Replacing all wheat and grain products with tapioca starch could lead to a diet lacking in both protein and nutrients.
It is also unsuitable for people on low-carb diets as it consists almost entirely of carbohydrates. And of course, some people will have tapioca or cassava allergies, although it is rare.
What is the best tapioca flour substitute?
Tried it, discovered it wasn’t for you and are now the hunt for a tapioca starch substitute? Maybe you’re following a recipe and don’t have any tapioca flour in the cupboard? Don’t worry we have some tapioca starch alternatives here for you!
Here are some of the best tapioca flour alternatives:
- Cornstarch: naturally gluten-free and great for cooking and baking
- Cassava flour: fibre-rich, gluten free and even better for thickening
- All-purpose flour: can be swapped 1:1 in most recipes
- Potato starch: gluten-free and great for thickening
- Arrowroot: flavourless, gluten-free and can often be swapped 1:1 for tapioca flour
- Rice flour: naturally gluten-free with a mild flavour and can be used to thicken recipes
- There are many tapioca flour replacements
- A lot of them are also gluten free
- Only some are good for baking
Last updated: 11 February 2021
Author: Donia Hilal, Nutritionist
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018. Donia has 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.
Donia has a special interest in; weight management, plant-based nutrition, pregnancy nutrition, special diets and disease risk reduction. Donia’s LinkedIn profile