Is Cassava the Carb You Should Be Using to Fuel Your Rides?

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Photo credit: CarlaNichiata - Getty Images

Photo credit: CarlaNichiata – Getty Images

From Bicycling

Potatoes and carrots may never seem to get old, but there is a whole other world of root veggies out there to explore, one being cassava. What is cassava, you ask? This subterranean veggie has long been a staple carb for people in many countries, but just now are more people taking notice, thanks largely to its ability to wiggle its way into a range of packaged foods, such as tortilla chips, cereal, and even pasta.

Testing out unfamiliar foods—like cassava—can be a way to add excitement and a broader range of nutrients to your diet. So read on to learn if this root will elevate your riding performance and kick your meals up a notch.

What Is Cassava?

Cassava is an edible starchy root (tuber) with white flesh and a nutty, slightly sweet flavor that is widely grown in tropical regions and has been a fixture of West African, Caribbean, and Latin American cuisine over generations. (Depending on who you ask, it’s also known as yuca, manioc, or mandioca.)

Cassava flour is made from the peeled, dried, and ground root and has become a popular non-grain option in the gluten-free and paleo world. Tapioca, on the other hand, is the dried starch isolated from cassava and typically used for thickening purposes such as when making puddings.

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Does Cassava Have Any Unique Nutrition Benefits?

Cassava is a good example of a food that crosses the nutrition cultural divide. A 1-cup serving of raw cassava contains the following:

  • 330 calories

  • 3 g protein

  • 1 g fat

  • 0 g saturated fat

  • 78 g carbs

  • 4g fiber

  • 42 mg vitamin C

  • 43 mg magnesium

  • 558 mg potassium

Cassava is certainly considered dense in carbohydrates. Roughly 95 percent of the calories in the root hail from carbs, and it contains more than almost all other commonly consumed vegetables. This can make cassava a benefit to endurance athletes who require higher amounts of carbs to support the energy needs of training. So consider cassava your friend if you are carb-loading for a big race or event. All these carbs also make it a smart option as part of a post-ride recovery meal to help restock spent energy stores. Think of it as the pasta of the vegetable world.

The majority of the carbs in cassava can be considered “complex,” like those found in whole grains, legumes, and other starchy vegetables. Complex carbohydrates contain longer chains of sugar molecules, which usually take more time for the body to break down and use. This in turn provides you with a more consistent stream of energy than, say, a handful of candy.

But if you are already eating a lot of higher carbohydrate foods, adding cassava to your diet may put you over the threshold for what you need. In this case, it can be advantageous to use cassava to replace another starchy item like mashed potatoes.

Also, keep in mind that the calorie count of cassava—a little more than 300 in a cup serving —is significantly higher than many other root vegetables. For example, a cup of carrots has about 55 calories, whereas the same amount of sweet potato has 115 calories. So it may be best to consider cassava a food to consume in moderation and in more reasonable portions than other vegetables. Still, if you’re spending some serious time on the bike, the extra energy that cassava supplies could give you an advantage.

Some of the starch in cassava is considered “resistant,” a type of starch that bypasses digestion, and, therefore, behaves like dietary fiber. Resistant starch feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut, which may in turn help reduce inflammation and promote better digestive health. And if your gut is happy, your immune system is, too. Studies (including this one and this one) suggest that boosting resistant starch intake can alter the levels of hormones involved in appetite regulation, like leptin, in a way that boosts feelings of fullness throughout the day. Few people eat enough resistant starch, making cassava a good vegetable to work into your diet more often.

Cassava can be considered an excellent source of vitamin C, which is not only great for supporting immune health (it may help cyclists stave off the common cold), but also for keeping blood pressure numbers in the healthy range. And a recent study in the Journal of Nutrition found that having adequate levels of vitamin C can help us maintain higher amounts of lean body mass as we age. By acting as an antioxidant, vitamin C may work to defend muscle cells from harmful free radical substances. A cup of cooked cassava delivers about 29 milligrams of vitamin C, which is 38 and 32 percent of the recommended daily intake for women and men, respectively.

Magnesium is another nutrient worth mentioning that cassava supplies in healthy amounts. Though very few Americans eat enough of this essential mineral, it’s required for hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, including those involved in immunity, bone formation, and muscle function. An investigation in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that higher intakes of magnesium could be protective against developing liver cancer, a particularly deadly form of this disease. And, we need enough magnesium for proper vitamin D metabolism in the body. (Who isn’t concerned about their vitamin D status these days?)

Cassava flour maintains much of the nutrition found in the whole root and is a good baking option for those who need to steer clear of gluten. Just keep in mind that despite the hype, this new flour is not necessarily any more nutritious than whole wheat and other whole-grain flours. More heavily processed forms of cassava—such as tapioca—will have a more limited nutritional value.

How to Eat Cassava

It’s not a guarantee, but you may be able to find cassava root in the produce section of your favorite supermarket. Otherwise, it can reliably be found in Caribbean and Latin grocers. Sometimes, it’s available in the frozen food section at these markets.

Cassava needs to be peeled and cooked before eating—noshing on the raw root is a recipe for stomach revolt and the peel is bitter tasting. What’s more, raw cassava, especially if unpeeled, contains chemicals called cyanogenic glycosides, which can release harmful cyanide in the body when consumed. However, eating the flesh when it’s been cooked well is not dangerous.

Since the cassava peel is more bark-like than the skin of other root vegetables, it’s easier if the peel is removed with a paring knife instead of a vegetable peeler.

You can cook and use cassava in ways similar to other starchy vegetables like potatoes. It can be mashed for a side-dish, added to stews and soups, and incorporated into a roasted root vegetable medley. Yuca fries or chips are a popular alternative to the fried potato variety. Caribbean- or Latin-focused cookbooks are a great place for cassava recipe inspiration.

Preparation methods, such as steaming and roasting, may retain more of cassava’s nutrients than boiling, where compounds like water-soluble vitamin C can leach into the surrounding water. This problem is largely fixed if you are also consuming the liquid the cassava is cooked in, such as with chili or soup.

When it comes to cassava flour, its white color, neutral taste, and fine texture make it an excellent baking option. You can try substituting cassava flour for 1/4 cup or more of the type of flour called for in recipes for pancakes, waffles, brownies, cookies, and muffins—some even say cassava flour adds a more delicate texture to baked goods. Casabe, a crispy flatbread made from cassava flour, is a popular option in Caribbean cooking.

It’s worth noting, though, that its lack of gluten means you can’t simply use it as a 1-to-1 substitute in recipes calling for wheat flour and expect good results. It’s best if you use previously tested gluten-free recipes that include cassava flour, and then start your own experimenting from there.

These days, you can find an increasing number of packaged foods including cereal, cheese puffs, and tortillas made with cassava flour. The brand Jovial even created pasta made with cassava flour that has the taste and texture you’d expect from any good spaghetti. Just make sure to look at the nutrition label of any packaged cassava products, since some can be high in sugar and saturated fat.

The Bottom Line: Cassava certainly contains nutritional benefits worth trumpeting and can be a great way for cyclists, especially those following a gluten-free diet, to get the energizing carbs they need to keep up the pace. But overall, cassava is not a food that must be a regular part of your diet. There are many other vegetables in the produce department you can eat that will provide the nutrients you need.

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