Can You Eat Tapioca on a Gluten-Free Diet?

Choose Your Tapioca Carefully

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Tapioca is made from the roots of the cassava plant. Getty Images/Marie Hickman

Tapioca is not a grain at all, so it does not contain gluten. Instead, it's produced from the peeled roots of the tropical cassava plant, native to South America. Cassava is an important source of starch and calories for people in both South America and Africa.

Tapioca's Gluten-Free, But...

Since it's not a grain (gluten only occurs in the grains wheat, barley, and rye), tapioca is naturally gluten-free in its pure form.

Tapioca flour and tapioca starch are ingredients used in many gluten-free products. You can feel confident that as an ingredient in those products, it's safe for someone who has celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

However, you cannot assume that every brand of tapioca you can buy in the store is automatically gluten-free. As is the case with other naturally gluten-free grain and grain-replacement products, tapioca has a high risk of gluten cross-contamination. It is frequently processed on the same equipment as gluten grains.

Why Isn't Tapioca Always Safe?

To make tapioca, food processors grind the cassava root, boil it, and then process it to extract the starch from the ground-up root. The little pearls of tapioca you find in tapioca pudding are the result of this process. Tapioca starch and tapioca flour generally are the same product, they just have different names.

Manufacturers of products labeled as gluten-free take extra steps to make sure that gluten-free ingredients like tapioca are protected.

This means they're generally not processed in the same facility (let alone on the same lines) as wheat, barley, or rye grains and flours.

However, other manufacturers (many in Asia can be offenders, although they are not the only ones) may not take these allergen-specific precautions. It can be difficult to be certain what precautions they do take by reading their packaging.

Therefore, when buying tapioca flour or tapioca starch, you should take care to stick with companies that specifically call out their products as "gluten-free." You will find that these products are generally more expensive than the generic tapioca you may find at your local Asian market. Yet, your health is worth this extra measure of safety.

Gluten-Free Tapioca Brands

Here's a list of companies that produce gluten-free tapioca flour or starch:

  • Big River Grains: When you need baking ingredients, turn first to Big River Grains. It is a family farm in Oregon that processes only gluten-free and oat-free products. They are extraordinarily careful to keep out any trace gluten. Big River Grains offers both tapioca starch and cassava flour.
  • Bob's Red Mill: This is one of the most readily available sources of gluten-free tapioca flour you'll find. Bob's tapioca flour is tested to ensure it contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten. If you react to gluten-free oats, you should be aware that Bob's gluten-free baking products (including the tapioca flour) are processed on the same lines as the company's gluten-free oats.
  • Ener-G: Ener-G may be better known for its tapioca-based gluten-free bread products, but the company also sells pure tapioca starch. Ener-G tests its products to ensure they fall below detectable gluten levels, currently 5 parts per million (lower numbers are always better).
  • LivingNOW: NOW is best-known for its supplements. Yet, its baking ingredients—including tapioca flour—are certified gluten-free (tested to below 10 parts per million). They are produced in an allergen-free, gluten-free facility. 
  • Nuts.com: Yes, Nuts.com sells nuts, but the company also sells a variety of other gluten-free products, including bulk tapioca starch in several sizes. Nuts.com is certified gluten-free, which means the tapioca starch and the retailer's other products must test below 10 parts per million of gluten.
  • Shiloh Farms: This retailer is certified gluten-free as well. Shiloh Farms sells one-pound bags of ground tapioca starch that's sourced in Thailand and processed in a gluten-free facility.

    What Else Should I Know About Tapioca?

    Tapioca makes gluten-free baked goods moist and tastier. Many all-purpose gluten-free mixes contain tapioca, as do many ready-to-eat gluten-free bread products.

    Gluten-free Chebe bread mixes are based on tapioca starch. Chebe's popular Original Cheese Bread was inspired by a unique Brazilian bread called pao de queijo.

    You can make tapioca pearls by placing tapioca starch in a bowl and slowly adding boiling water. Form the resulting mush into balls and allow them to dry for several hours. Once you have tapioca pearls, you can make your own tapioca pudding and bubble tea. 

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