Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
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Tapioca is a popular ingredient in many food items, including puddings, pies, and bubble teas. But for those following a vegetarian diet, it can be difficult to determine if tapioca is a suitable option.
Often, whether a food is vegetarian or vegan friendly is blatantly apparent. But sometimes, a surprise unfriendly ingredient gets us questioning other foods we come across. Looking at you, gummies.
Because food made with tapioca often has a similar texture to gelatin, many people wonder if it is also not a vegetarian food.
By the end of this post, you’ll have a clear understanding of whether tapioca is an acceptable food choice for those following a vegetarian lifestyle.
What is tapioca?
We’ll put your mind at ease first. Tapioca is 100% vegan-friendly.
So what is it, exactly?
Tapioca is simply the extracted starch from a root vegetable. The cassava plant is a staple in tropical and sub-tropical environments of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It may also be called yuca (different from yucca) or manioc.
Tapioca starch has an appearance not unlike flour and is often found on the baking aisle with other thickeners, such as arrowroot and cornstarch. However, I think many of us are introduced to tapioca in the form of pearls in bubble tea or at frozen yogurt shops. There are so many uses for tapioca, though!
How is tapioca used?
There are so many uses for tapioca; it can be easy to forget them!
- Thickening agent for sauces, soups, or stews (tapioca starch)
- A gluten-free alternative to wheat flour in baked goods (tapioca flour – but make sure to find a recipe that specifically uses tapioca flour!)
- Binding Agent for vegetarian “meat”balls or veggie burgers
- Tapioca Pearls
- Boba (or Bubble) tea
- Tapioca pudding
- Brazilian Feijoada – a black bean stew that usually contains pork and is served with rice and collard greens, but tapioca pearls are sometimes included.
- Taho – a Filipino dish made from silken tofu, a sweet syrup, and tapioca pearls
- Kolak – an Indonesian dessert typically made with coconut milk and sugar. Some variations include tapioca pearls.
- Sago soup – a Cantonese dessert soup
- Falooda – An Indian dessert traditionally made with sabja (basil) seeds, but sometimes with chia seeds or tapioca pearls instead.
- Halo Halo – A cold Filipino dessert made of a wide variety of ingredients mixed together, sometimes containing tapioca pearls.
- Sagu – A Brazilian dessert made from tapioca pearls, mulled wine, and sugar.
- Sweetener (tapioca syrup)
- Vegan alternative to honey
- Vegan cheese alternatives
- Vegan alternative to gelatin
- Sustainable alternative to plastic
Tapioca in all forms is almost 100% starch/carbohydrate. While not a bad thing in itself, do keep this in mind when tapioca is used as a replacement for wheat.
Wheat contains fiber, vitamins, and protein in addition to its carbohydrate content.
As a side note: if you are using cassava as a whole, such as fufu, tapai, piutu, and more, you’ll get a lot more nutrition, including resistant starch, fiber, and a multitude of vitamins and minerals. This is why it is considered a life-saving staple in many countries.
Thankfully, cassava (and thus tapioca) has a very low rate of allergies. However, some people that are allergic to latex may experience a similar reaction to cassava and its products.
In conclusion, tapioca is a versatile and tasty ingredient that can be a great addition to many dishes.
It is made from cassava root, which is a plant-based product and does not contain any animal ingredients.
This makes it suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
However, it is important to keep in mind that some processed tapioca products may contain animal-derived ingredients such as gelatin, so always check the label before purchasing.
Overall, tapioca is a vegetarian-friendly ingredient that can add a touch of sweetness and texture to your meals.
Have you tried tapioca?
Let me know in the comments!
Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.