Tapioca balls, or widely known as boba or pearls to the public when used as an ingredient in bubble tea, are produced from tapioca, a starch extracted from the cassava root1. The starch balls are spheres and have varying sizes typically ranging from five to ten millimetres in diameter. These pearls generally come in semi-transparent black or cream color, and food dyes can be used to apply different colors especially to the lightly colored pearls. Moreover, adding water or sweeteners such as honey or sugar can change the texture of the balls. Thus, it is not hard to find various versions of tapioca balls, including flavored, coloured, mini, and more2. Soaking tapioca balls in sugar syrup is a common technique to enhance sweetness and chewiness3. Tapioca balls in teas serve to add their texture while the flavour comes from the beverage itself4.
Tapioca pearls originated from Southeast Asia, where they first extracted a starch from local vegetation such as palm hearts or glutinous rice, including pearl sago, landang, and kaong. The traditional versions are commonly used in not only drinks but also in dessert dishes such as, halo-halo, bilo-bilo, puddings, and more.
During the colonial era, cassava root was introduced from South America, and it became another source of starch to Southeast Asian cuisine. The source of starch does not affect the taste of the pearls, and often they can be used interchangeably.
Tapioca pearls are primarily composed of tapioca starch which is extracted from the pulp of cassava root.
Cassava (Manihot esculenta), also known as yuca or tapioca root, is a tuberous drought-resistant vegetable that is cultivated annually and serves as a major source of carbohydrates in several tropical nations; however, it is relatively poor in protein and fats.
Starch makes up approximately 80% of the carbohydrate in cassava root, but it has trace amounts of glucose, sucrose, fructose and maltose as well. While native to South America, the top four producers of Cassava are Nigeria, Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil. Although tapioca starch is essentially flavourless, it contributes to the texture of tapioca pearls as its water absorption capacity provides the clear, gel-like property with an elastic mouthfeel unique to tapioca pearls through a process known as gelatinization.
Gelatinization & Retrogradation
Gelatinization occurs when a starch is heated in water. As the starch granules absorb water and swell, it creates space for hydrogen bonds to form and bind starch molecules (amylose and amylopectin) to water molecules. Subsequently, the starch granules burst, taking on tender and pliable properties. Tapioca starch is favoured in the food industry because of its low gelatinization temperature, high viscosity and low retrogradation tendency. To induce gelatinization, tapioca pearls are boiled before consumption, thereby acquiring their chewy, gel-like quality and bubble-like appearance.
Retrogradation, is a phenomenon wherein the water holding capacity gelatinized starch is reduced after cooling or refrigeration due to the reorganization of starch molecules, namely amylose, in crystalline regions. This reorganization induces syneresis, along with a reduction of tenderness and the development of a gritty texture.
The source of tapioca starch, cassava root, contains natural toxicants called cyanogenic glycosides. Upon maceration, cutting, bruising or crushing of the plant’s tissue, the endogenous enzyme ß-glycosidase hydrolyzes the cyanogenic glycosides which results in the creation of hydrogen cyanide. The hydrogen cyanide binds to cytochrome oxidase, thereby inhibiting its function. Since cytochrome oxidase plays an essential role in the oxidative phosphorylation cycle of mitochondria, this inhibition results in the death of cells.
The rapid absorption of cyanide in the gastrointestinal tract causes distinct symptoms to occur at fatal and non-fatal levels. Lethal doses of hydrogen cyanide range between 0.5-3.5 mg/kg of body weight. Bitter cassava root generally yields 53mg/100g of hydrogen cyanide, however, dried bitter cassava root cortex contains a substantially higher amount of 245mg/100g. Although, after proper detoxification processing of soaking, heating, drying or fermentation of the cassava, the risk of cyanide poisoning is significantly reduced, and the product can be safely consumed.
Generally, tapioca pearls are sold in vacuum sealed plastic packaging. They are often dehydrated. Vacuum packaging refers to the technique of removing air from a pack prior to sealing, and it predates the use of gases as a means of food preservation. Its principal purpose is to remove oxygen by pulling the packaging material into intimate contact with the product. According to Module 8.6 on Canvas, packaging materials for dehydrated food should not only impart physical protection, they should assist in preserving dehydrated foods by further protecting against moisture absorption, as well as preventing interactions with oxygen and light.
Tapioca pearls are often sold dehydrated, and are boiled to obtain their firm and chewy texture. Uncooked tapioca pearls are fairly easy to store, they need to be kept in a protected environment so that they do not lose any of their taste and texture.
Since they are stored in sealed bags, they can be either left unopened to store, or if opened, they will need to put into new packaging, for example, an airtight container which can protect it from exposure to air and moisture. Exposure to heat, air or moisture will cause a reduction in quality. Tapioca balls are made from tapioca flour, which is prone to mould when exposed to high humidity, air, or moisture. Oxygen availability determines whether a food can support the growth of aerobic or anaerobic microorganisms.
Upon contact with water or moisture, mould may begin to grow. Referring to FNH200’s Module 5.2 on Canvas, moulds are filamentous and are also found on most foods of agricultural and aquatic origin. Research indicates that water activity can have significant impacts on the microbial load of tapioca starch. When water activity was lowered, microbial count was reduced.
Thus, the best packaging option would be a sealable plastic container, since the tapioca pearls need to be stored in a dry, cool area away from sunlight and such packaging will prevent food spoilage and deterioration by aerobic microorganisms, particularly mould. Like most perishable foods, since opening, people should try to use the leftover tapioca pearls within 3 days.
A 10 gram serving of plain tapioca pearls offers 35 calories and 9 grams of carbs.
One 490mL (16.5 ounce) serving of brown sugar with tapioca pearls bubble tea contains the following:
- Calories: 270
- Carbs: 45 grams
- Protein: 6 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Fat: 7 grams
The small amount of tapioca pearls in milk tea won't provide much of any other nutrients. However, the bubble tea shop often uses sugar as sweetener, which increases the calories and carbs.
Tapioca-based products, like milk tea, may ultimately lack protein and nutrients, and on its own, it has no significant health benefits or adverse effects.
Other Uses of Tapioca Flour
Tapioca flour is multi-purpose and can be used for a variety of confectionaries such as:
- Gluten and grain-free bread: Often times it can be used in combination with flour
- Flatbreads: Tapioca flour can easily be used to make flatbreads and toppings are often added for flavour.
- Puddings and Desserts: This is one of the more common uses of tapioca flour, it is rounded into small tapioca pearls to be added at the bottom of drinks or dessers.
- Thickening agent: It can be used as a thickener in soups, sauces, and gravies. 
Tapioca Flour and Restricted Diets
Wheat, grains, and gluten are one of the Top 10 Food Allergens in Canada . On the other hand, tapioca is both grain and gluten free thus a good alternative for individuals with restricted diets; it is an excellent replacement for wheat-based products. Moreover, Cassava root is a resistant starch. Natural resistant starches have been said to improve overall metabolic health. For example, it feeds the good bacteria in your gut thus reducing inflammation and limiting the number of bad bacteria. It may also lower blood sugar levels after meals, enhance glucose and insulin metabolism, and increase fullness. However, it is important to note that altough tapioca flour comes from the cassava root, it has a lower content of natural resistant starches due to processing. Therefore, it is probably better to get these natural resistant starches from legumes, rice, or potatoes 
What is the process in which cooked tapioca pearls are left on the counter and begin to harden again?
A. Retrogradation; there is a reassociation of starch molecules, especially amylase, into an ordered structure
B. Retrogradation; there is a disassociation of starch molecules, especially amylase, into a less ordered structure
C.Retrogradation; there is a reassociation of starch molecules, especially amylopectin, into an ordered structure
D. The interaction of oxygen and the sugars coating the tapioca causing the pearls to harden
Our question should be used for the final exam because retrogration is a topic that was heavily discussed in lecture and helps us understand what is happening within our food when left on the counter. It is both within the scope of our knowledge and relatable in our daily lives.
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