Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of Cassava, besides being able to grow where other crops won’t – is its versatility; it can be roasted, cooked on coals like a potato, fried into chips, boiled or shredded to act as a rice substitute to name a few methods. If you’re from a Western Country, chances are you’ve actually probably tried Cassava yourself, in a dessert, or possibly “bubble tea” – but you probably wouldn’t have known it as Cassava… you’ll probably know of it as Tapioca.
Cassava is pretty bland in flavour on its own, and I’ve tried it a number of ways, prepared by locals using traditional methods. My personal preference is to eat it fried, however it does tend to suck the moisture out of your mouth a bit, so having a bottle of water on hand is always good (or in my case, a cup of locally grown and brewed black coffee).It is important to note though, that Cassava does have one draw back… and it’s a pretty serious one. The Cassava root contains cyanide, a deadly poison. While other common foods also contain cyanide, such as almonds – people generally don’t consume the volume of, say almonds, as they do Cassava – especially in a remote area where you can’t grow much else.
“The most alarming example of this trend is 262 ppm in one brand of cassava chips. A child weighing 20 kg would need to eat 40g to 270g of these chips to reach the lethal dose – potentially that’s just one bag of chips.”
– Monash University study into Cassava based products establishing a growing foothold in the Australian health food market
The levels of cyanide can be reduced by correct preparation, but where a particular food is a staple due to financial and agricultural limitations and eaten for practically every meal, even cooked as safely as possible, there are bound to be some side effects from ‘bulk consumption’. In this instance, Cassava’s cyanogenic properties can cause iodine deficiencies within the communities. The World Health Organisation has stated that “Serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy can result in stillbirth, spontaneous abortion, and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism, a grave, irreversible form of mental retardation…”. Iodine deficiency can cause impaired thyroid hormone synthesis and/or thyroid enlargement; causing the formation of large goitres. Thankfully, this draw back can be reduced, if not removed entirely by the simple addition of Iodized Salt to the meal-preparation process, instead of regular salt. This replenishes the body with Iodine that the Cassava may have removed.
Cassava is an amazing, versatile food that sustains as many as 800 Million people world wide. It also causes great damage to impoverished communities when health issues start to appear due to Iodine deficiency. Proper education and supplementing the diet with ingredients such as iodized salt will help ensure that impoverished communities are able to utilise the benefits of Cassava while offsetting the potential negative health issues related to Cassava.