Healthy or Not: Flour Alternatives
Flour alternatives now fill the baking aisles. Why should we consider flour alternatives and which one is the “healthiest” choice?
The original ‘go-to’ - white flour - is a highly refined substance that is made when the wheat bran and germ is removed, leaving only the starchy endosperm. This makes white flour more shelf-stable, but by removing the bran and germ, you are removing a lot of fiber and other nutrients.
Below, we breakdown the nutritional benefits of the different types of flour alternative options in comparison to white flour.
So what’s for you?
When deciding which flour alternative is best for you, start with considering your personal nutrition goals - whether that’s creating a delicious lower-carb baked good or just adding more nutrients to your favorite recipes. In the absence of specific dietary restrictions, several flour alternatives like oat, chickpea, coconut and almond may be worthwhile additions to cooking and baking.
Oat flour and chickpea flour while moderate in carbohydrates, can increase the overall nutrient content of recipes compared with white all-purpose flour. Almond flour is the best low carb option, although it does contain the most calories per serving. Coconut flour provides the most dietary fiber with lower than average net carbohydrates per serving. Both provide the most protein per serving, which is important for those following a bariatric or otherwise protein-focused diet.
Flour alternatives can be purchased from a variety of places including health food stores, online, specialty grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and increasingly at mainstream grocery stores in the baking or natural foods section. When choosing to use any type of flour or flour alternative, it is best to do so in moderation and in a way that supports your overall health and nutrition goals.
For those who want even more information on some of the most popular flour alternatives, we take a deeper look below:
Almond flour is made from blanched almonds that are grounded and sifted into a fine flour. Almond flour is low in carbohydrates and high in fiber. It is particularly rich in Vitamin E, a fat soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant to help protect the body from free radicals. Almond flour also contains minerals like phosphorus, calcium, potassium and magnesium, which are vital for maintaining bone health.
- PROS: grain free, gluten free, rich in vitamin E, monounsaturated fats, fiber, protein, and numerous antioxidants
- CONS: high in calories
Coconut flour is made from coconut flesh that has been dried and ground. Mild in taste, its texture is similar to other alternative flours. Coconut flour can be used in an array of recipes, both sweet and savory. Keep in mind that coconut flour tends to absorb more liquids than other flours and doesn’t bind easily. Therefore, it cannot be used as a one-to-one replacement. For best results, start out by substituting ¼ cup of coconut flour for every cup of white flour. You may additionally need to increase the total quantity of liquids by the amount of coconut flour added.
- PROS: rich in fiber, provides healthy fats and plant-based iron
- CONS: alters taste, dry
Cassava (yucca root) flour is made from the whole cassava root that has been peeled, dried and pulverized. Cassava is very mild in flavor so its flour is a neutral-flavor gluten free flour alternative. It has a similar binding quality to that of wheat flour. Cassava is a good source of vitamin C and fiber. It is also a great source of resistant starch, which can promote healthy gut bacteria. Cassava flour is very mild and neutral in flavor. It’s also not grainy or gritty in texture. Rather, it’s soft and powdery.
- PROS: grain free, nut free, gluten free
- CONS: high in carbohydrates.
Tapioca is a starchy product made from the storage root of the cassava or yucca plant. Tapioca is high on the glycemic index scale, providing a quick source of carbohydrates. It is gluten free, nut free, and grain free. Similar to cassava flour, however cassava flour contains more fiber and provides a thicker texture than tapioca flour in baking. It can be used as an alternative for thickening soups, sauces, and pie fillings.
- PROS: grain free, nut free, gluten free
- CONS: high in carbohydrates
Arrowroot is an easily digested starch extracted from the roots of the arrowroot plant, Maranta arundinacea. It is gluten free and grain free and can be used as a substitute for cornstarch or for flour in baking. It has no flavor of its own, so can also be used to thicken any sauce, soup, stew, or pudding. When used in gluten free or paleo-style baking it imparts a light, airy texture and combines well with other grain free flours.
- PROS: easily digestible, allergen-friendly, contains resistant starch
- CONS: high carbohydrate content, low fiber, protein and vitamin/mineral content
Oat flour is made by grinding oats into a powder. It is a whole grain flour substitute that can be used for baking and cooking in combination with other flours. Oat flour can be used in gluten free recipes if labeled as certified gluten free. Oat flour can be used to add fiber and protein to a recipe and is fairly easy to digest. It provides a good source of prebiotic fiber which helps to feed beneficial gut bacteria.
- PROS: fairly easy to digest, allergen-friendly/gluten free option, good source of fiber, provides some protein
- CONS: High carbohydrate content, dense texture in baked goods
Garbanzo Bean (chickpea) Flour
Also known as gram flour or besan, this type flour made from ground chickpeas has long been a staple of cuisines from the Indian subcontinent. It is made by grinding raw, dried chickpeas into a powder. A good source of vegetarian iron, protein and fiber, chickpea flour imparts a nutty flavor when used in cooking. It is a dense flour with natural binding tendencies and can be a useful addition in gluten free baking where chewiness can sometimes be an issue. For those with dairy allergies or who follow a vegan diet, chickpea flour can be used as a base for making sauces that would otherwise use cheese or milk.
- PROS: Good source of protein and fiber, option for those with allergies or who follow specialized diets, good source of plant-based iron, affordable
- CONS: Moderate carbohydrate content, dense texture in baked goods, alters flavor