Tapioca can be found in many food items in the USA so you might wonder, is tapioca gluten-free? As a huge boba tea lover (which spoiler, boba tea has tapioca in it), I can tell you the short answer to this question is yes. But like with everything, not everything made with tapioca will be GF.
However, the long answer to that question is that even though tapioca itself is gluten-free, it can be in gluten-filled foods. This is why understanding how and when it shows up, and how to read a food label in the USA is so important to celiac safety.
In this post, we’ll be diving deep into tapioca and exploring what it is if it’s safe, its many uses, and if those are gluten-free, plus how to cook with it,
But first, were you ever taught how to identify gluten properly on a food label? If not, sign up for my FREE USA Food Label-Reading Class where I show you EXACTLY what you need to look for on a food label to stay celiac-safe in the USA. Stop stressing over grocery shopping in just 4-simple steps with this FREE training!
This post was written with the help of a dietetic intern, Serenity Dylan.
Gluten is a protein found in barley, rye, contaminated oats, and wheat. It may be helpful to remember the acronym “BROW” when trying to remember what foods have gluten.
In baked goods, gluten holds things together working as a binding agent. It gives texture and chew to foods.
Most people can safely eat gluten. However, some people have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease which means they need to avoid gluten. It can cause digestive issues such as diarrhea and nausea as well as nonintestinal symptoms such as rashes, headaches, or joint pain.
Now that we know what gluten is, we need to know what tapioca is to understand if it’s gluten-free. Tapioca is the starch extracted from the root of the cassava plant. It is native to Brazil but is now widely grown in South America.
Tapioca is commonly used in desserts and Boba tea in the United States. It also is used for gluten-free baking as a gluten-free flour and as a thickener. Because it’s not derived from wheat, barley, rye, or contaminated oats, it is gluten-free.
Before we dive deeper into the gluten-free nature of tapioca, I want to touch on tapioca maltodextrin and what it is.
Tapioca maltodextrin is gluten-free. It is a powdered ingredient produced from organic tapioca starch using enzymes. It is used as a food additive to add bulk to and stabilize certain substances.
It is a versatile, food-grade dextrose that comes in the form of a very fine powder and is used to replace fats in cheese products, puddings, ice cream, and desserts.
Lastly, before exploring gluten-free tapioca in more detail, I want to talk about the elephant in the room. Because diet culture is rampant in the celiac community, I want to address the conversations around tapioca being touted as “inflammatory”.
A study by Laudisi et al1 shows that consumption of the food additive maltodextrin, incorporated into many processed foods, leads to the promotion of intestinal inflammation. These findings suggest that this broadly used food additive could be a risk factor for chronic inflammatory diseases.
However, this study does not differentiate between corn maltodextrin (the most common maltodextrin) and tapioca maltodextrin.
Additionally, the maltodextrin fed to the mice studied comprised 1% to 5% of their diet. The deleterious effects happened at a 3% and higher concentration. Because Maltodextrin is used in trace amounts in processed food as a thickener/filler, it is very unlikely that someone would eat that much maltodextrin regularly in their diet.
Additionally, tapioca maltodextrin is a derivative of tapioca flour. Tapioca flour is the starch from the cassava root. Conversely, another study showed that a diet rich in resistant starches caused an increase in anti-inflammatory bacteria and a decrease in pathogenic bacteria when fed to pigs. However, tapioca is a refined starch, not a resistant starch like cassava.
Basically, at the amounts we consume of the variety of forms of tapioca, it’s unlikely to cause harmful inflammatory effects as some people might argue. However, do what you feel most comfortable as you know your body best.
Now that we know tapioca is generally safe, we can get to the true question of this post, is it gluten-free? Tapioca is naturally gluten-free being that it is not made from gluten-containing grains (barley, rye, contaminated oats, and wheat).
It can function as a gluten-free thickener in soups or gravies. It can also function as a gluten-free flour in a baking product. Typically, it will need to be combined with other gluten-free flour to get the right consistency.
You can get certified gluten-free tapioca flour such as from Let’s Do Organic brand to guarantee that it has no gluten from the manufacturing process. Bob’s Red Mill and Anthony’s also make tapioca flour with a gluten-free claim. And remember, gluten-free claims and certifications are not always necessary for something to be generally celiac-safe.
Now that we know that tapioca is gluten-free, what about tapioca pearls? Tapioca pearls are generally gluten-free. Usually, they are made with tapioca starch compressed into little pearls but could have gluten additives in them. However, I must admit, in my love for boba and tapioca pearls, I’ve never found tapioca pearls that contain gluten.
You would find tapioca pearls typically in tapioca pudding. Giant tapioca pearls are also used for Boba tea. Tapioca pearls are liked for their chewy nature of the pearls.
When talking about gluten-free tapioca, you might also wonder if Bubble/Boba tea is gluten-free. Boba tea is popular because of the different flavors it comes in. It is also popular due to the chewy boba pearls that add a textural element to the drink. There are now chains of Boba restaurants in the USA such as Quickly, Chatime, and Gong Cha.
Boba or Buble tea is made of tea, milk or creamer, sweetener, and tapioca pearls (boba pearls). All of which are generally gluten-free.
It is when natural flavorings or malt are added that boba or bubble tea may no longer be gluten-free. So you would want to check into that. I usually order simple green milk boba teas. For more on ordering safe bubble tea, check out this blog post.
Tapioca pudding is gluten-free. It is made with water, tapioca, milk, salt eggs, sugar, and vanilla. These ingredients are all gluten-free. Tapioca pudding is eaten around the world. It is made during festival time in India. It is a common dish in Britain and the USA.
To make it, soak the tapioca in the water. Pour in the milk and salt and simmer. Add the sugar, stirring frequently. Beat the eggs separately then add the tapioca mixture, heating until it reaches pudding consistency.
If you want to make your life simple, you can make it with Kraft Minute Tapioca (affiliate link) does not make a gluten-free claim but the ingredients are simply tapioca and soy lecithin.
Now that we know almost all forms of tapioca are gluten-free, you might wonder if it’s ultimately safe for people with celiac. The answer is yes! Celiacs can eat tapioca because it is gluten-free.
Tapioca is a starch extracted from the cassava plant root and contains no gluten-containing grains.
Many tapioca-based desserts and foods like tapioca pearls and pudding are gluten-free. As always, check the ingredients of anything you buy just to make sure gluten isn’t hiding.
Looking for gluten-free tapioca foods? Maybe you want to make tapioca pudding or are curious about which bread and flours have tapioca… regardless below is a list of gluten-free foods with tapioca.
Kraft Minute Tapioca is gluten-free (affiliate link). While it does not make a gluten-free claim, the ingredients are simply tapioca and soy lecithin.
Remember, food products in the USA do not always need a gluten-free claim in order to be safe. Things can be gluten-free and safe for celiac based on ingredients when they meet specific requirements. For more information on this, check out my free dietitian-led Celiac Label-Reading Class. That said, do what you’re most comfortable with.
Another gluten-free food made from tapioca is Ener-G Light Tapioca Bread Loaf. This bread is made with rice and tapioca flour.
Ener-G is a well-respected gluten-free company that specializes in special dietary products. Use this bread like any other bread for toast or sandwiches.
Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Baking Flour has tapioca in it. Not to be confused with Bob’s Red Mill Cup for Cup gluten-free flour. This version is much more earthy and better for savory dishes.
This flour can be used in a 1:1 ratio meaning if the recipe calls for 1 cup of regular flour, use the same amount of this flour. It can be used in any regular recipe, however, because it lacks gluten which is a binder, you may need an egg or a gum such as a xanthan gum to bind together the product. This flour works well to make zucchini bread.
Canyon Bakehouse Gluten-Free Deli White Bagels have tapioca flour as the second ingredient. These bagels also contain sorghum, rice, and potato starch.
A bonus? They are also dairy, soy, and nut-free. They pair well with cream cheese. These bagels are reviewed as a 3 out of 5 stars.
Glutino Gluten-Free English Muffins are made with gluten-free tapioca. It’s the 3rd ingredient. They are also fortified with nutrients many celiacs need. (Learn more about gluten-free fortified food here).
These would go perfectly paired with butter. They are enriched with B vitamins for energy. They do contain milk and egg.
Udi’s Gluten-Free Pizza Crust is the last gluten-free product made with tapioca that I’ll be listing. This crust also contains brown rice and xanthan gum. Brown rice provides fiber and B vitamins for energy. Use this crust with your favorite toppings to make pizza at home. For more on buying gluten-free pizza, check out this post.
Have tapioca flour lying around and are looking for recipes to use it in? Or maybe you’re looking to be adventurous and try your hand at baking with this gluten-free flour… Below are some gluten-free recipes you can use your tapioca in.
These Paleo Chocolate Chip Cookies are made by Gluten-free on a Shoe String and feature GF tapioca flour. To make these, tapioca flour is mixed with almond flour along with baking soda, salt, coconut sugar, coconut oil, eggs, vanilla extract, and dark chocolate chips.
My Brazilian Cheese Bread recipe is another recipe to try that has gluten-free tapioca flour in it. This recipe takes 50 minutes total to make.
All you’ll need is almond flour, tapioca flour, xanthan gum (yes it’s gluten-free), baking powder, butter, heavy cream, apple cider vinegar, eggs, and shredded cheese.
These Paleo Blueberry Muffins by Downshitology are perfect for my gluten-free friends! It features antioxidant packed blueberries which also provide Vitamin C. These are great for a quick breakfast (if you make a batch in advance).
To makes these muffins you will need almond flour, tapioca flour, coconut flour, baking soda, salt, blueberries, eggs, almond milk, maple syrup, coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, and vanilla extract.
This Gravy by Tastes Lovely is gluten-free and made with just butter, tapioca flour, chicken stock (make sure it’s gluten-free), and salt/pepper. It was given a 5-star rating out of 17 reviews. A creative way to use tapioca in your recipes.
Lastly, want to know how to generally use gluten-free tapioca in gluten-free baking? It can be used in two different ways. First, it can be used as a thickener, and second, it can be used in flour mixes.
To use tapioca as a thickener in gluten-free cooking, use it in a 1:1 ½ ratio as a replacement for wheat flour as a thickener. For example, if it says to use 1 TBSP of wheat flour use 1 ½ TBSP of tapioca starch. Use it to thicken soups or gravies.
To use tapioca in gluten-free baking flour blends, you’ll want it to make up 15% of the blend. For example, in a blend of rice flour, potato starch, and xanthan gum, try using 15% of the total blend as tapioca starch.
Tapioca is gluten-free and is the starch taken from the cassava plant root. It is a wonderful product used in gluten-free cuisine. It functions as a flour and thickener as it aids texture and chewiness. Tapioca is found and can be used anywhere from bread, to muffins, to cookies to bagels.
On a personal note, I’ve written “tapioca” so many times that it feels like I’m spelling it wrong but I’m not… aye.
If you want more help knowing which ingredients are gluten-free in the USA, check out my free label-reading class. There I talk about what ingredients you need to watch out for and how to identify gluten on a food label in 4 simple steps. Take the free recorded class with this link.