Cassava (also known as manioc) is a root vegetable from the central region of Latin America. Like potatoes, it’s an ancestral and basic food in many cultures, but today it’s gaining special prominence on the international market thanks to its nutritional qualities.

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123rfLimited©julioricco. Raw cassava pieces.

What is cassava?

Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is an ancient root vegetable from Latin America. It is one of the world’s oldest crops, as it is estimated to have been cultivated and consumed for more than 8,000 years. Usually cultivated by small farmers in more than 100 countries, cassava is considered a very versatile food.

On a nutritional level, it has very similar nutritional properties to other roots, such as potato, sweet potato or tiger nut, but with higher levels. Cassava is naturally rich in complex carbohydrates (approximately 38% of which are starch) and has good percentages of proteins, fibre, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, as well as other trace elements (such as zinc, selenium or copper) and vitamins A and C.

A resilient crop

As a root, cassava grows underground, but it is obtained from a perennial shrub that grows up to two metres high. Its main virtue is its ability to adapt to almost any type of climate. cassava grows in poor soils where other crops do not thrive, both in humid soils (in tropical regions) and in warmer soils with long hours of sunshine. Furthermore, it doesn’t need a demanding care: it requires few nutrients, little water and few pest controls.

Cassava is harvested one year after planting, at optimum maturity

During the first months, the cassava grows very slowly and the whole plant is usually harvested one year after planting. This is the optimum time to extract the roots at their ripening point. If it gets older, the root may harden to the point of being inedible. Even so, there are many varieties of cassava, some sweeter, some more bitter. After harvesting, cuttings are taken from the plant to replant the crop, as the current varieties reproduce better by cuttings than by seed, experts agree.

The root is cylindrical and elongated, and approximately 10 centimetres in diameter. It is the most important part of this plant. Its shell is hard, woody and inedible, but the pulp is firm and generally white in colour (some varieties may have yellowish tones). However, it must be cooked for consumption, as the root and its leaves release hydrocyanic acid and other harmful compounds that must be neutralised by heat (either by cooking, roasting or stewing).

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123rfLimited©yotrak. Farmer harvesting cassava bulbs.

A popular food

This root is a valuable source of food, employment and income for many developing communities. Cultivated mainly in Latin America, Asia and Oceania, it is estimated to be an important part of the diet of 500 million people in the world, being the fifth largest crop overall.

“The “food of the poor” has been transformed into a multi-purpose crop that responds to the priorities of developing countries, trends in the global economy and the challenge of climate change,” noted the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in its Saving for Growth guide, published in 2014.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, cassava’s world production has not stopped growing. According to the FAO, cassava production increased by 60% between 2000 and 2014, and forecasts indicate that it will accelerate even more in the current decade, “when its enormous potential begins to be recognised”.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, cassava’s world production has been growing steadily

©CasanaFoods. Cassava pancakes with yoghurt and berries.

Consumption driven by new trends

Although there are few references on world production of cassava, all reports agree that the market for this ancient root vegetable is expanding.

One of the main reasons is the health benefits attributed to its consumption, in line with growing consumer demands. According to scientific research, cassava is known to be rich in vitamins and minerals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Given its high fibre and carbohydrate content, it is considered a food with a filling effect, which facilitates digestion and provides a lot of energy, being very low in fat. For this reason, it is welcome in diets for athletes or people with high levels of physical activity. Its levels of vitamins K, A and C, as well as iron and potassium, link cassava to the maintenance of bones and teeth. And, as it is naturally gluten-free, it’s an excellent alternative source of carbohydrates and fibre for people with coeliac disease.

Indeed, new food trends suggest that consumption of cassava is set to increase in North American and European markets due to its nutritional properties.

 New food trends suggest that consumption of cassava is set to increase in North American and European markets due to its nutritional properties

Cassava flour and starch: some particularly valued by-products

Its variants and by-products, such as tapioca, are also becoming increasingly popular. The pulp is extracted from cassava, as is the starch: a product used in the food industry (bread, pastries, jams), as well as in the textile industry and in the production of other products such as paper and adhesives.

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123rfLimited©rhj2017. Wooden spoon with cassava flour.

Amongst its by-products, however, cassava flour is particularly noteworthy. Among other applications, it is used to thicken broths, soups and purees or to make desserts, cakes and other sweet and savoury recipes. It is an “attractive alternative to wheat and maize, especially because cassava yields a high-quality flour that can be used as a substitute for wheat flour,” says the FAO, which points out that the price of cereals is another reason driving international demand for cassava.

Casana Foods: bringing organic cassava to international markets

“There are currently cassava products, but no one is proactively exploiting their potential with products that are really adapted to the consumer and the way they consume,” says Ezequiel Hernández, founder of Casana Foods, a company dedicated to the production of products made from organic cassava.

casana foods productos
©CasanaFoods.

It started as an MBA (Master of Business Administration) project to study the potential of cassava, and has now grown into a food production and distribution company that aims to bring organic cassava to the international market.

From traditional farming to innovative products

True to its motto “Back to the roots”, Casana Foods produces this ancient root by recovering traditional methods and emphasising the connection with the land so that the products maintain their essence and are suitable for all consumers. For this reason, it grows its cassava on its own land located in Mérida, a city in the state of Yucatán in Mexico. The Casana Foods team cultivates and harvests the cassava taking care of every part of the elaboration process: it is sown at full moon, applying the necessary care until it is ready to harvest months later, during the new moon.

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©CasanaFoods. Casana Foods’ cassava is produced on its own land using environmentally friendly techniques.

Once cassava has been harvested under optimum conditions, it undergoes a processing process in which its nutritional components are not altered at all. All of this is done under a vertical business structure and without losing sight of current market trends. “We expect exponential growth in the next 10 years, once people get to know cassava, understand its qualities and begin to consume it on a more regular basis. For this, the challenge is to adapt the cassava products to the European market, to the European way of eating, etc.”, adds Ezequiel Hernández.

“We expect exponential growth over the next 10 years”

To achieve this, Casana Foods has developed innovative products, such as gluten-free, sugar-free, high-fibre and low-fat Cassava toasts and Crunchy Cassava, an ideal ingredient for making batter, but also for providing a crunchy texture and giving body to gratins, sauces or cakes, as it is a substitute for conventional flour.

©CasanaFoods. Crunchy Cassava.

Organic production guarantee

“It is important that all the food we consume is as natural as possible, as additives, chemicals and artificial pesticides have negative consequences on our health, especially in the long term. Now more than ever, we must take care of what we consume and keep our immune system strong to avoid illness,” says Ezequiel Hernandez.

For this reason, Casana Foods has both the USDA and the European organic certification for all its products. In addition, its products are verified as GMO Free (without Genetically Modified Organisms), and its production system is accredited under the FSSC22000 quality standards.

Author: Ariadna Coma, Journalist

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