The eternal bread

Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a perennial shrub of the Euphorbiaceae family, also known as cassava or yuca in Spanish-speaking American countries and in the United States. Although a perennial plant, cassava is widely cultivated annually in tropical and subtropical regions of the planet for its edible tuberous root, which constitutes one of the main sources of carbohydrates. The cassava root is long and tapered, with firm and uniform flesh enclosed in a woody brown skin. Cassava is classified into two main categories: sweet and bitter. In particular, the latter, like other roots and tubers, contains toxins (cyanide) that require proper preparation before consumption to release only its beneficial effects.

Cassava has ancient origins and is undoubtedly native to South America. It is proven that the predecessor of cassava was concentrated in the central western Amazon and its cultivation began over 10,000 years ago in current neighboring countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia, and Peru. Proof of the enormous nutritional importance of this tuber root is found in fascinating remnants of ceramics, textiles, and funerary monuments of the Nazca, Moche, and Paracas civilizations depicting cassava in Peru in the cities of Ayacucho (the city of churches) and Huarmey, as well as on the Chavín obelisk in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. It was also cultivated in today’s Colombia by the Muisca and Tegua civilizations, where the latter were famous for their ability to extract medicines from plants. Cassava rapidly spread throughout Latin America, also entering Mayan culture, while in the Caribbean countries, the term ‘Yuca’ was coined for it. With the discovery of America, cassava was exported to Europe, to then be spread widely in Africa and Southeast Asia. The conquerors were fascinated by the richness of the South American land, and many of their writings of that time recounted the importance of products like cassava, its preparations to obtain a multitude of foods, and its beneficial properties. Particularly famous were the writings of Fernandez de Oviedo and Fray Pedro Simon, who, in addition to the taste and nutritional richness of cassava, praised the ease with which it could be conserved, including the actual root, as well as the bread that pre-Columbian civilizations derived from it. The bread could be preserved for a long time and resist contact with water, becoming a fundamental food for both land and maritime expeditions.

Characterized by a high cultivation yield and low water demand, cassava is currently grown across the tropical belt of the Earth and represents one of the main sources of carbohydrates for over a billion people in the world. Since ancient times, it has been heavily exploited for the production of a starchy substance from which a multitude of bread substitute products, as well as tapioca, is obtained. Cassava is a quality source of energy and has a general reconstituting effect. Thanks to the presence of amino acids such as lysine, leucine, valine, and arginine, it plays an important protective and reparative role in the body’s tissues. Due to the good presence of saponins and dietary fiber, this tuber has a significant effect on reducing cholesterol levels, acting directly on low-density lipoproteins (LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol) and triglyceride levels in the blood. These characteristics give it properties for preventing heart diseases. Cassava contains calcium, a mineral necessary for maintaining healthy bones and teeth, as well as vitamin K, which plays an important role in building bone mass by promoting osteotropic activity. Moreover, it is demonstrated that vitamin K plays an important role in the treatment of patients with Alzheimer’s, as it limits the degeneration of neuronal cells. Cassava is a moderate source of some B-group vitamins, such as folate, pyridoxine, thiamine, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid, which are important for the production of metabolic hormones and the regulation of the body’s overall metabolism. The fiber and resistant starches present in cassava slow down the process of sugar absorption into the bloodstream, aiding in controlling blood glucose levels. It is a good option for people with diabetes or other metabolic diseases.

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