The popularity of cassava as a grain free, low allergy foodstuff has exploded in recent years. Food manufacturers responded with the development of a wide array of processed foods derived from the yuca root (unrelated to yucca). One of the newest is cassava syrup, which is boldly proclaimed as being “fructose free”.
For those with a bit of knowledge about fructose, this can be an enticing ploy. After all, the big baddie high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is known to contribute to belly fat formation among other ills. But is this new fructose free sweetener good for your waistline and health as suggested by the marketing?
Yuca as a Sugar Source
Around the world, cassava goes by other common names including manioc and Brazilian arrowroot. The woody yuca shrub is native to South America. The large, starchy edible roots serve as the third largest source of carbohydrates after rice and maize in the tropics.
Cassava flour is made from the tuberous root. Most Americans are already familiar with the slightly more processed form of cassava starch – tapioca. But much of the world is familiar with its root, starch and flour form. In fact, almost a billion people consume and depend on yuca as a dietary staple! Consumption dates back many thousands of years, and some ninety countries depend on it as a primary foodstuff.
The root, while very high in carbohydrates and starches, actually contains very little sugar. While one cup of yuca has 330 calories mostly as carbohydrates (78 grams or 312 calories), only 3.5 grams (14 calories) exist in sugar form.
At first glance, it appears that cassava is not exactly a stellar source to make large amounts of sugar. Or is it?
Cassava and Tapioca Syrup: Transforming Starch into Sugar
Yuca’s low sugar content is no match for modern chemistry, based on old approaches to creating sugar. Enzymes have the ability to turn many starches into sugars as we examined with rice syrup.
This is exactly the process used to manufacture cassava syrup.
Natural enzymes are used to convert raw cassava into a sweet, neutral-flavored syrup. The end product is fructose-free and is lower in calories and carbohydrates than regular cane sugar.
Incidentally, enzymatic processes are used to create tapioca syrup too, which is similarly derived from the cassava root. Tapioca flour is used instead of cassava flour, which is a bit less processed. Tapioca syrup is a common substitute for corn syrup in processed foods manufactured and marketed to more health-conscious shoppers.
Interestingly, a similar process is why sweet potatoes and some other tuberous plants traditionally undergo curing before consumption. Tubers need time for their natural enzymes to break down the hard to digest starches into simpler and sweeter components. The question is, when it comes to cassava, does this approach result in a healthy or beneficial final product? How does it compare to other natural sweeteners?
Cassava Syrup Compared to Other Sweeteners
There are several ways to compare the value of sweeteners. First is by comparing the glycemic index (GI). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any reliable resource that provides the GI for cassava syrup. Since it is so new, no tests appear to be available. However, it is likely quite high since it is 35% glucose and 35% maltose which have GIs of 100 and 105, respectively.
Second, we can look at the makeup of the sugar molecules in the sweetener itself. Since yuca derived syrup is fructose free, this fact alone may give it market traction as this characteristic is different from most other sweeteners. A senior brand manager for the company Madhava has this to say about fructose-free cassava syrup:
Due to the fact that organic cassava is fructose free, it’s an excellent option for people who are fructose intolerant. The sugar profile is 35% glucose [GI of 100], 35% maltose [GI of 105], and 30% complex [carbohydrates]. The neutral-flavored syrup adds natural sweetness to food and beverages. (1)
Did you know that some people cannot digest fructose? Others who get too much fructose in the diet may experience a predisposition to canker sores. This really is a thing and a big problem for those who suffer from it.
Some people cannot completely absorb fructose in their small intestine-the beginning part of the digestive tract. The undigested fructose is then carried to the colon where our normal bacteria rapidly devour it. In the process, the bacteria produce gases which cause the intestine to swell. This is experienced by the person as bloating, cramping, gas and distention. Diarrhea may also occur due to the undigested particles of fructose. (2)
For people who suffer from this condition, sweeteners that are fructose-free are hard to come by. Cassava syrup is one of the few that they can consume. But there is also a lot of negativity towards fructose currently (partly because of its unfortunate association with high fructose corn syrup), so even those who have no known issues with fructose are looking for low to no fructose options.
Nutritional Profile of Cassava Syrup
Another way to compare sugars is by their nutritional profile. Here, cassava fails when we compare it to most other traditional sweeteners. Cassava is a relatively low nutrition root vegetable. Thus, any sugar made from it whether cassava syrup or tapioca syrup has little nutritional potential.
Compared to raw honey, maple syrup, palm or cane jaggery, and many others, cassava doesn’t bring much of anything to the table nutritionally in the natural sugar category.
How Sweet is it?
Finally, we can compare relative sweetness. Not all sugars are equally sweet. Less sweet sugars generally result in the need to use MORE of the sugar to get the same results. Honey, for instance, is about twice as sweet as standard sugar, so less goes farther.
Cassava syrup is less sweet than traditional sugars and herbal sweeteners like stevia. Thus, you need to use more to get the same level of sweetness.
Cassava Syrup and Healing Diets
Since syrups made from cassava root do not contain the disaccharide sucrose, some may think it is fine to consume on healing diets such as GAPS.
However, note that 35% of cassava syrup is maltose, which is a less commonly known disaccharide. Hence, this sweetener is unfortunately not wise to use while resolving gut imbalance issues. Stick with fruit, honey or date sugar only.
Other Benefits of Cassava Syrup
Besides being fructose-free, cassava syrup’s other main selling point appears to be its flavor. Honey, maple syrup, molasses, malted barley, date syrup, and many other liquid sweeteners have strong flavor profiles.
This makes them hard to use in some foods and dishes, as they can affect the taste substantially. Cassava has a neutral flavor profile, more similar to refined sugars, making it an easier replacement in baking and cooking.
Organic Cassava Syrup
Since cassava is a low to no spray crop, obtaining organic cassava syrup doesn’t break the bank. A good-sized bottle of a pint or more runs less than ten dollars online. At the health food store, it may cost a dollar or so less. This puts it at about $48 per gallon, right around the price point of raw honey and maple syrup.
Yuca Syrup Bottom Line
If you have fructose malabsorption issues, then cassava syrup could make sense as a sweetener substitute. Some manufacturers call it a “plant-based sweetener”, “tapioca syrup” or a “prebiotic sweetener” so be sure to check labels!
If you have a dish that really needs a neutral flavor profile, it might make sense when more nutritious maple syrup or other traditional sweeteners don’t work.
Otherwise, I don’t see a lot of benefits to cassava syrup. Using other whole sweeteners with much more nutrition is a smarter choice.
While it is made using principles of other traditional sweeteners- enzymatic breakdown to turn starch into sugar – I couldn’t find any evidence that traditional people groups who consumed the yuca root engaged in this process. Hence, it cannot be considered a traditional sweetener either.
Interestingly, you may end up consuming cassava syrup and not even know it! A number of companies are using it and its cousin tapioca syrup in the manufacturing of “other packaged products, including coatings, bars, confectionery, and baked goods.” (3)
This in my view is great news, especially if they are using cassava as a replacement for rice syrup with its widespread arsenic issues.
Will you be trying cassava syrup anytime soon? What is your experience with it?
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.