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Boil your cassava well

Cassava has been an integral part of the diet of this region since the days when only the First Peoples inhabited the islands of the Caribbean and the land of the Americas.

As a great source of calories and nutrition, cassava is still being consumed by Trinbagonians, whether boiled for soups or as a main dish, fried into chips, chopped finely as flour, or incorporated into sweet treats.

Belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family, cassava is a tropical, perennial, tuber crop with starchy roots, which is what we commonly consume. It is rich in carbohydrates, fibre, vitamin A and some vitamin Bs. There are over 40 varieties of cassava available in Trinidad and Tobago alone.

While this is an easy crop to grow and maintain, especially with our very suitable climate, it must be noted that raw cassava is very toxic. The plant contains levels of cyanide that can poison living organisms.

The two main cassava groups are bitter cassava and sweet cassava. The only difference is that bitter cassava contains higher levels of cyanide and requires much more attention and detail when it comes to preparing it for consumption. It is essential to clean and boil cassava thoroughly before consuming to remove all traces of cyanide. This toxic trait fortunately helps to keep away pests, allowing successful, undisturbed growth cycles.

To grow your cassava, start by preparing the land for cultivation by clearing weeds and other obstructions as you would for any other crop. Source healthy pieces of a cassava plant from the middle stem, also known as ‘setts’, of approximately 11 inches with 9-12 nodes. It is suggested these cuttings be dipped in fungicide for 10–15 minutes before planting but this is not necessary.

Plant your cassava setts by either laying them parallel to the ground and covering them with soil, leaving 2-3 nodes exposed or by burying them upright, still leaving some nodes exposed.

When growing cassava, the type of soil is not too important as they can grow in almost any soil type. Of course, soils with proper drainage are most ideal like sandy clay loams.

The soil should have good amounts of organic content and have a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. These plants thrive in areas with lots of rainfall and direct sunlight and should hit maturity 8–12 months after planting.

It may seem challenging to source cassava if you’ve never grown a plant at home before but once you get started, this crop will produce sustainably for years to come.

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What are Cyanogenic Glycosides?

Cyanogenic glycosides are a group of chemical compounds which occur naturally in over 2,000 plant species. There are at least 25 cyanogenic glycosides known to be found in the edible parts of plants. Cyanogenic glycosides alone are relatively non-toxic. However, as a result of enzymatic hydrolysis by beta-glucosidase following maceration of plant tissues as they are eaten, or by the gut microflora, cyanogenic glycosides are broken down to release hydrogen cyanide which is toxic to both animals and humans. The potential toxicity of a cyanogenic plant depends primarily on its capacity to produce hydrogen cyanide.

What are the symptoms

of cyanide poisoning?

In humans, the clinical signs of acute cyanide intoxication include rapid respiration, drop in blood pressure, rapid pulse, dizziness, headache, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, mental confusion, twitching and convulsions.

Death due to cyanide poisoning can occur when the cyanide level exceeds the limit an individual is able to detoxify.

The acute lethal dose of hydrogen cyanide for humans is reported to be 0.5 to 3.5 mg per kilogramme of body weight. Children are particularly at risk because of their smaller body size.

Chronic cyanide intoxication may lead to the development of certain conditions including disturbance of thyroid function and neurological disorders. It tends to affect those individuals who have regular long-term consumption of cassava with poor nutrition status.

(Source: Centre for Food Safety, Hong Kong –