Tapioca for allergy sufferers. Is it really hypoallergenic? - Strefa Alergii
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Tapioca for allergy sufferers. Is it really hypoallergenic?

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Tapioca has been breaking records in popularity recently. All because of the iconic bubble tea drink and the appetising desserts with jelly balls that have become the domain of vegan restaurants. You can get it in almost every shop, on the food shelf for allergy sufferers. Is it actually hypoallergenic? We will try to solve this mystery.

What exactly is tapioca? Properties, uses, origin

Tapioca is a starch product extracted from the roots of the edible cassava plant, which is mainly found in the equatorial zone [1]. It is extracted similarly to potato starch, the cassava itself being the tropical equivalent of the potato. Although cassava root is a poor source of protein, vitamins and minerals, it is rich in carbohydrates. It is therefore a good source of energy and staple food in many regions of the world – mainly in African, South American, and Asian countries [1,7]. It is responsible for ensuring food security there [7].

In addition to the root, cassava leaves are also consumed, and besides starch – i.e. tapioca – the plant is also used to make different types of flour (e.g. gari, lafun) [4]. Cassava has low requirements when it comes to cultivation. It can grow on all types of soil – those with a loose, sandy or loamy texture are particularly favourable. In addition, it tolerates drought very well [1,7].

Under the name ‘edible cassava’ there are two varieties of the plant of the species Manihot esculenta – bitter (poisonous in raw form) and sweet. The criterion for the division is the concentration of cyanogenic glucosides in the roots [1]. Poisonous hydrogen cyanide is released from the cyanogenic glucosides. In the processing of cassava, which produces tapioca, most of the cyanogenic compounds are removed. In addition, cooking, drying, frying, and fermentation allow cassava to be effectively detoxified and produce products with safe levels of hydrogen cyanide [1].

Tapioca, which does not affect the taste of food, is mainly used in the food industry – as a thickener and stabiliser (it can be a substitute for gum arabic). This is for economic reasons – it is a cheap and widely available raw material [1]. In addition, tapioca has other applications (e.g. in the paper and textile industries). It is subjected to many modification processes – from physical to chemical and genetic [1].

Perły tapioki w naczyniu

Pudding or bubble tea? Tapioca fashion

Tapioca consumption continues to grow as new modified forms of tapioca emerge. This ingredient can be found, among others, in the ubiquitous Asian-style noodles [1].

Tapioca often comes in granules that absorb water and swell when heated (starch gelatinisation process). As the temperature increases, the diameter of the granules also increases [1]. Tapioca pearls, which are granules made from cassava starch, have recently become particularly popular. Various desserts are made from such granules, which take the form of jelly.

Deser z tapioki w granulkach

Tapioca is also the main ingredient in a tea-based bubble tea drink. The recipe originates from Taiwan [5]. Bubble tea is already a phenomenon, a cultural trend among young people in big cities [6] – also in Poland. The prevalence of this drink in Asian countries has become so high that its consumption is of great interest to researchers in various scientific fields [5,6].

Tapioca hypoallergenicity – truth or myth?

Tapioca has properties (texture, stability, neutral taste) that make it the preferred type of starch used in the manufacture of baby foods [1]. It is found in modified milk, porridges, etc. One can conclude from this that it is a completely safe product. Tapioca is also on the radar of food processors, who are looking for new product formulations for people with food allergies, for good reason [1].

It is naturally gluten-free, so does not cause reactions in people with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance [3]. Furthermore, it can be an alternative to wheat flour. Likewise, it also has the advantages of being easily digestible and low in calories. It is advertised as hypoallergenic and allergen-free, which contributes to the growing interest in tapioca. Hypoallergenicity, however, does not mean that the product is not allergenic at all – only that it is very rarely allergenic [8].

Tapioca vs latex allergy

All the evidence suggests that an allergic reaction to tapioca is possible in specific cases. Studies have been carried out showing that cassava can cross-react, and the risk of such reactions applies to people with a latex allergy [2,4]. So far, the allergenicity of several cassava proteins has been proven, including Man e 5 [4,7]. It shows similarity to Hev b 5 responsible for adverse reactions to latex.

The list of foods that cross-react with latex is long. In addition to cassava, it includes, for example, potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, mangoes, papayas, melons, figs, kiwis, peaches, and aubergines [2].

It is known that cassava – as a cross-allergen – can induce allergic symptoms on first contact [4]. What is the allergenic potential in processed products, which include the popular pearl tapioca? This question has not yet been investigated. Only isolated reactions (including anaphylaxis) have been described after peeling raw cassava, as well as after consumption of raw cassava flour or cooked tuber [2,7].

Researchers speculate that cassava allergy may be related to unidentified allergens that do not cross-react with latex [7]. They also expect an increase in the number of allergic people reacting to cassava, which is related to the spread of a food until recently known only in tropical areas [2]. It remains to be seen what knowledge the future will bring on this subject.

Aleksandra Lipiec

translation: Julia Majsiak

[1] Breuninger W.F., Piyachomkwan K., Sriroth K., Tapioca/Cassava Starch: Production and Use (2009). Starch: Chemistry and Technology, Third Edition (ed. J.N. BeMiller, R.L. Whistler). Cambridge, Academic Press, 541–568. Online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780127462752000124

[2] Allergy to cassava: A new allergenic food with cross-reactivity to latex (2007). Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology, 17(6), 409–412.

[3] Konińska G., Marczewska A., Źródlak M. (red.), Celiakia i dieta bezglutenowa. Praktyczny poradnik (2014). Online: https://www.celiakia.pl/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/poradnik_wyd_X_04.pdf

[4] Food allergy to wheat, soybean and cassava in Benin: Literature Review (2016). International Journal of Multidisciplinary and Current Research, 4, 713–723. Online: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313479094_Food_allergy_to_wheat_soybean_and_cassava_in_Benin_Literature_Review

[5] Yahya N.A., Zulki N.AA., Rosni N.AM., Knowledge and awareness on consumption of bubble tea towards obesity and caries risks: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Dentomaxillofacial Science, 8(2), 91–95. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/373926666_Knowledge_and_awareness_on_consumption_of_bubble_tea_towards_obesity_and_caries_risks_A_cross-sectional_study

[6] Hồng Xuân P.T., The Bubble Tea Culture of Young People in Ho Chi Minh City – A Cross-Cultural Exchange Between Taiwan (China) and Vietnam in the 21st Century (2022). Online: https://www.atlantis-press.com/proceedings/insyma-22/125977268

[7] Ventura A.K.R.M i in., Fructose biphosphate aldolase: A new cassava alergen (2023). World Allergy Organization Journal, 16(12). Online: https://www.worldallergyorganizationjournal.org/action/showPdf?pii=S1939-4551%2823%2900105-9

[8] „Hipoalergiczny” – znana deklaracja, nowe zasady. Biotechnologia.pl. Online: https://biotechnologia.pl/kosmetologia/hipoalergiczny-znana-deklaracja-nowe-zasady,18951