Herbs & Plants: Cassava, one of the major staple foods

Manihot esculenta, commonly called cassava (Family Euphorbiaceae) is one of the most important and widely cultivated tropical food crops.

It is a semi-woody perennial shrub growing to an average of up to 3 metres high; having single to few stems, sparingly branching. Cassava is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics, after rice and maize. It is a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for over half a billion people. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, capable of growing on marginal soils. There are several species of cassava, but generally differentiated as sweet and bitter types.

Cassava tubers contain calories, protein, fat, carbohydrate, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B and C and starch. The leaves contain vitamins A, B1 and C, calcium, protein, fat, carbohydrate and iron. Unlike the leaves, the bark contains tannin, peroxidase enzymes, glycosides and calcium oxalate. Young leaves of cassava can be cooked as a vegetable or boiled like spinach and can even be added to stews. Despite the fact that some sweet varieties contain little or no glucosides, the leaves need to be thoroughly boiled before consumption to destroy the harmful glucosides chemical found in it. In many countries across the world, cassava roots are usually cooked for food and serve for a rich source of carbohydrates.

The tuberous root can be sliced and fried, boiled and can also be added to vegetable dishes or ground into flour and used to make bread and biscuits or as a thickener in soups and desserts. Although the root tubers contain numerous food nutrients including starch and vitamin C, cassava can actually lead to malnutrition when entirely used as the main staple food in the diet.

This food plant is medicinally used in some communities to treat and manage a number of disease conditions including; irritable bowel syndrome, fever, ringworm, conjunctivitis, sores and abscesses. Cassava leaves are rich in compounds bakarotennya; a pro-vitamin A and beta-carotene antioxidants which are important for the eye health and good vision.

The leaves have been used against many disorders, such as rheumatism, fever, headache, diarrhoea and loss of appetite. In some communities, the bitter leaves of cassava are used to treat hypertension, headache and pain. In fact, the leaves also have been reported to have antihemorrhoid, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activities. And owing to the fact that cassava is a gluten-free natural starch, it is used in cuisine in some communities as a wheat alternative for patients with celiac disease (gluten-sensitive enteropathy).

Cassava also contains fibres, which are not soluble in water and hence enhances the absorption of toxins in the digestive system especially within the intestines hence maintaining a healthy digestive system. Furthermore, the sticky decoction made from boiled cassava root tubers can be taken to relieve one from conditions such as diarrhoea and dysentery. Eating cassava in dietary supplement may offer a variety of health benefits including enhancement of fertility. In regulated doses, the roots of bitter cassava can be applied externally to treat scabies and made into a poultice to treat wounds. In addition to the nutritional and health benefits, cassava is also extensively used as a source of glue due to its very rich starch quantity.

However, some care should be exercised when consuming cassava since it may be a little more poisonous when raw due to the presence of glucosides chemical in it. Furthermore, it’s important to note that the improper preparation of cassava can also leave enough residual cyanide that can cause acute cyanide intoxication and goitres and may even cause ataxia or partial paralysis. (Richard Komakech)