Yuca is becoming very popular in the grain-free and gluten-free spaces, but what is it and where does it come from?
Yuca is a starchy root vegetable that is the same thing as cassava. It may also be called manioc. It can be consumed as a starchy vegetable, processed for starch (which is tapioca starch) or its skin can be processed to make cassava flour!
This starchy staple has a rich history in Latin American and Caribbean cuisine as well as in parts of Africa and Asia (1).
This blog will go over the full rundown of yuca including its origins, its properties, common dishes, how to incorporate it into a meal, its health benefits, and of course, its nutritional value.
What is Yuca
Yuca is a starchy root vegetable, much like potatoes and yams. It has been used for many traditional foods, and yuca roots have been used for fabrics, cosmetics, building materials, and even some medicines (2). This root vegetable offers a great variety of flavor and texture.
Yuca is less available in the US than potatoes or yams. It must also must be prepared very particularly to be safe for consumption. However, nutritionally there are many similarities between yuca and potatoes.
Yuca originally comes from South America and grows in warm, moist climates for at least 8 months of the year. It has also become a staple in parts of Africa and Asia where there are similar climates to yuca’s home.
The cassava plant is drought-resistant which makes it a great staple food for places with drastic weather changes! Today, there are an estimated 800 million people that have yuca as a staple in their diet. (3)
What does yuca taste like?
Yuca has similar properties to potatoes and it can be manipulated and cooked similarly to them. It has a bit of an earthier, nutty flavor than potatoes, but texture-wise they are very similar (4).
Is it a carb or a vegetable?
Just like potatoes, yuca is a starchy vegetable. It is technically a vegetable and has a lot of great nutrients (more on that below).
You will want to treat yuca like a carb on your plate, meaning you will want to serve it with protein and non-starchy vegetables for a balanced, filling meal.
How is it typically served?
There are many Latin American heritage dishes using cassava. You can typically find it in a soup or a side dish.
Some of the common side dishes using this root vegetable include:
- Yuca fries,
- Viandas (a Puerto Rican root-vegetable side dish)
- Farofa (toasted cassava flour used as a topping – think breadcrumbs!)
- Pão de Queijo (Brazilian cheese bread)
- Yuca Con Mojo (yuca fries with garlic)
- Cassava puffs
- Cassava cake
and of course,
- Mashed yuca
Yuca is frequently used in stews with meat, vegetables, and sometimes plantains. These stews are a rich part of Latin American food culture.
One particular example of this is Sancocho: a Dominican specialty that has its roots (pun intended) in Colombia and Educador before gaining mass popularity in the Dominican Republic (5). We’ll go over the ingredients in Sancocho later in this blog!
Yuca can also be used for cassava flour or starch to create tapioca starch. Yes–tapioca starch comes from yuca! The starch or cassava flour can then be used to make pasta, tortillas, pudding, or even my personal favorite: boba (tapioca pearls).
½ cup of boiled yuca with oil has (6):
- 153 Calories
- 1g Protein
- 2.5g Total Fat
- 1g saturated fat
- 1.5g unsaturated fat
- 32g Carbohydrate
- 1.5g Fiber
- 1.5g Sugar
- 116mg Sodium (~5% daily needs)
- 225mg Potassium (~4% daily needs)
- 14.5mg Vitamin C (~16% daily needs)
As you can see, yuca is has a variety of nutrients. It has carbohydrates, fat, fiber and even a little bit of protein!
Yuca is also a great source of vitamin C, which is great for overall health and for helping in the absorption of iron (7).
While some people are concerned by the carb content, yuca is an overall nutritious food with plenty of potential health benefits including:
- Rich energy source due to its complex carbohydrate content. Carbohydrates are the most efficient energy source out of all the major nutrients. And complex carbohydrates like yuca help prevent major blood sugar swings.
- High fiber content may support healthy digestion, lower blood pressure and aid in insulin uptake (8,9)
- Resistant starch can aid in lower blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and overall digestion (10).
- It’s gluten-free! Cassava flour is used to make naturally gluten-free breads like Brazilian pao de queijo. For people who need to avoid gluten, cassava offers a replacement carb, without giving up important nutrients like fiber and vitamin C.
- Vitamin C provides antioxidants and increases iron absorption. So you can see serving yuca in a stew with meat can help you get the most nutrition out of that stew (11)
Building balanced meals
Yuca provides a great source of complex carbs and fiber, but that does not make it a full meal. For a balanced meal with yuca, it is best to treat it as a carb for the portion on your plate and add the following food groups:
- non-starchy vegetable
- healthy fat (which can be included in your protein choice or cooking oil)
Serving sizes do differ per person but the general go-to to keep in mind for a balanced plate is (12):
- ½ cup carbohydrates
- 3 oz protein (approximately ½ cup or the size of the palm of your hand)
- 1 cup non-starchy vegetables
Using yuca as part of a stew with meat and non-starchy vegetables is a great way to have a complete and tasty meal!
Yuca does naturally contain chemicals that can be converted into cyanide in our bodies, so it is very important to prepare yuca properly.
Some sources will outline the difference between sweet cassava and bitter cassava, with bitter cassava containing much higher amounts of cyanide throughout the root, and thus requiring much more extensive processing (13).
Both varieties need to be peeled and cut, soaked for several hours, and thoroughly cooked before consumption. For sweet cassava, this should be sufficient, but for bitter cassava, a more extensive process is required (14).
However, it is possible to have a dangerous amount or improperly prepared sweet yuca, as well (15). This is why getting variety in your diet (don’t just rely on 2-3 foods) and using proper cooking methods is so important.
In the United States you will rarely find bitter yuca in the produce section of most grocery stores. You are more likely to find bitter yuca after it’s been thoroughly processed into a product like tapioca or farofa. The yuca you see near the vegetables is more likely sweet yuca.
Frying yuca is a very delicious way to enjoy the root vegetable, however some people may be be concerned about the health impacs of frying foods..
Like we talked about when we discussed plantains, there is a higher chance of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes with frequent intake of fried foods (16).
It is best to limit eating fried foods to 2-3 times per week and be mindful of how you fry each food (17). However, it doesn’t make your entire meal unhealthy if there is one fried food!
How to prepare
The most important thing to know about preparing yuca is not to eat it raw and not to eat the peel. But don’t let this scare you away from enjoying it!
When picking yuca it is best to grab one that has a nice firm texture to it with no cuts or signs of mold. Generally stores will keep yuca in wax to help preserve it and keep it from getting moldy but you can feel its texture through the wax.
When you cut into it, it should have all white flesh and the skin should peel away easily from the inside. It should remain fresh for 1-2 weeks after purchase and there isn’t a set season when it’s freshest, which is a nice perk. (18)
If its preparation is a bit too intimidating it can also be found frozen, just like potatoes! Frozen yuca will have the same flavor once prepared. Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually frozen at the peak of ripeness so you will not lose nutrients (19).
What to make
It is a very versatile food and can be prepared much like potatoes, it can be used to make fries, mashed yuca, or used in a stew.
Additionally, the starch from is used to make tapioca starch for puddings, cakes, tapioca pearls (boba) and some bread-like pastries.
Here are some recipes you can try at home!
Sancocho: a vibrant and flavorful Dominican stew (some say their national stew) it has beef, goat, pork ribs, pork sausage, pork belly, chicken, plantains, yams, malanga, squash, corn and of course, yuca with all the yummy garlic, onion and seasonings we love with Latin foods!
Yuca con mojo: a Cuban side dish with boiled yuca and a yummy citrus garlic sauce. It’s consistency is like a soft potato but its not usually mashed so the sauce can be drizzled (or drenched) over the top. Serve with a pork roast!
Yuca is a versatile starchy vegetable that may be a part of one of your favorite dishes or treats and you may not even know it. It’s the base of so many sweet treats including tapioca pudding, boba, or cassava cake!
This starchy vegetable has been a staple of South/Central American and Caribbean cultures for a long time, and with good reason! It provides a rich source of complex carbohydrates with fiber and vitamin C!
When prepared properly, this root vegetable can make a very healthy addition to your meals, when paired with a protein and non-starchy vegetables (like in stew).
Curious how more of your favorite heritage foods can fit into your balanced diet? Check out the Balanced Latin Meals Guide. This guide helps you understand the major nutrients of all your favorite heritage ingredients, and walks you through building a balanced plate.