What Is Tara Flour—and Is It Safe?
In June 2022, a Reddit thread with complaints about "extreme stomach pain/sickness from lentil leek crumbles" sparked what turned into a Daily Harvest recall of products that were eventually implicated in dozens of hospitalizations and hundreds of illnesses, according to an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration.
In a statement that the meal-delivery brand released on July 19, Daily Harvest's CEO Rachel Drori, said, "We have identified tara flour as the cause of the issue … We have only used this ingredient in French Lentil + Leek Crumbles and we are no longer sourcing from this producer who does not provide any ingredients for our 140 other items. This was the first and only time we've used tara flour, which has been available and used in the North American market as a plant-based source of protein prior to our use. Our investigation team will continue working with the FDA, the tara flour producer and others to help determine what specifically made people sick."
Daily Harvest's French Lentil + Leek Crumbles was the only product impacted, but the ripple effects were more like tidal waves for the dozens of people who experienced them. Reports of more than 329 illnesses and 133 hospitalizations have been submitted to the FDA, and several social media influencers have taken to Instagram and TikTok to share their experiences. Luke Wesley Pearson, a vegan lifestyle influencer, said that he had to have an organ removed after eating two servings of the Crumbles he received as part of a Daily Harvest promotional campaign. Others have described severe gastrointestinal symptoms and abnormal liver function to the FDA, and many victims are now working with lawyers to file lawsuits against the company and the product's manufacturer.
So what is tara four, what could have gone wrong, and is it—or will it—ever be safe to eat? Here's what health experts need you to know.
What Is Tara Flour?
Tara is a genus of flowering plants in the legume family. Tara trees, also known as Peruvian carob or spiny holdback, are grown in South America. This plant is a relative to alfalfa, clover, beans, lentils, lupins, peas, peanuts, carob, mesquite and tamarind, explains Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., distinguished professor of food microbiology and extension specialist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Tara is grown for several purposes, including as a food additive that's mainly included in products as a gum, which acts as a stabilizer or thickener, says Diana Licalzi, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian and the co-founder of Reversing T2D in Boulder, Colorado.
"The legumes of this plant, like many plants, can be made into flour. Tara flour is a relatively new product that is not widely consumed," Schaffner says. "Note that the FDA has not confirmed that the flour is the cause of the problem, although the company Daily Harvest states that it is."
Since tara flour is high in protein, about 40% to 50% protein by weight, it has been used as a plant-based protein source. Other types of flour like all-purpose flour (8% to 11% protein) and whole-wheat flour (12% to 14% protein) are much lower in protein than tara flour. This is likely why Daily Harvest turned to it as a protein-booster in their plant-based meat alternative.
"Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of information out there on tara flour, as it hasn't been around in the North American food supply very long—about one year," says Roxana Ehsani, M.S., RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "We simply don't know much yet."
Related: 6 of the Healthiest Flours to Use
Is Tara Flour Safe?
Here's what we do know, though: The tannic acid that's extracted from tara seed pods has been categorized by the FDA as a "direct food substance affirmed as generally recognized as safe (GRAS)." The Environmental Defense Fund suggests that tara flour itself may not have been put through the same "GRAS" process to prove their safety, however.
"Research has indicated that tara used as gum in foods is safe and nontoxic; however, it seems as though less research has been established on the safety of tara flour," Licalzi says.
Maybe this batch of tara flour was toxic to people due to how it was sourced, handled or manufactured, Ehsani says. Perhaps it was contaminated somewhere along the way.
Or, "It could be potentially risky to consume this product raw," Schaffner explains. "I think it's also possible that the flour in this case was made from a related species—not the one that is commonly used for food—and it was the use of that incorrect species that resulted in the illnesses. Reportedly, these legumes may have a high tannin content, and this could be toxic, too."
Some people suffer from sensitivities to specific proteins as well, Licalzi adds, as is the case for individuals with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. These populations have trouble digesting gluten, a specific protein found in wheat and other gluten-containing grains.
"People who suffered illnesses from the Daily Harvest product containing tara flour could have a similar sensitivity to tara proteins," Licalzi hypothesizes.
In any case, it's best to avoid tara flour for now until we know more about it and why it has caused so many people to get sick, the exports we spoke to agree.
"Check the ingredients label of any type of prepared food to confirm that tara flour isn't in it," Ehsani says.
The Bottom Line
"Given the recent hospitalizations from the Daily Harvest recall, I would tell friends and clients to refrain from ingesting tara flour until we have further information on what exactly caused the illnesses among so many people," Licalzi says.
We still don't know if tara flour is potentially toxic to humans, if a toxin was accidentally mixed with the tara flour used in the Daily Harvest products, or if some people have sensitivities to tara flour.
Regardless of the cause, "The risk is not worth taking," Licalzi adds, so be sure to check the label of any food product and if you visit a restaurant or purchase from a meal-delivery service, ask if any of their products contain tara flour. As always, if you experience symptoms that you believe might be related to something you ate, it's wise to report it to your state health department or the FDA.