Wheat Flour is Probably the Worst Flour for Health. So What about Coconut Flour, Almond Flour, Hemp Flour, Cassava Flour, Buckwheat, Green Banana Flour, or Cricket Flour? Let’s Look at Alternative Gluten Free, Grain Free Flours for Comparison…
When I first began eating gluten free, there wasn’t much of a choice for alternative flours, except rice flour. I actually got used to using it, and was successful using it instead of wheat flour for most recipes. However, rice is a grain and a highly refined one at that, so I’ve begun to experiment with other non-grain, low-glycemic flours. All of them have differing nutrient qualities and different textures, so what works for one recipe, may not work for another. In addition, many flours, even if they are non-grain, can still be highly refined starch and therefore high glycemic. Not good! New types of flours are showing up everyday, so it’s hard to keep up, but here is a rundown of some of the top-selling Paleo, non-grain/gluten free flours.
Coconut has been one of the popular, Paleo-style, low-glycemic substitutes for regular flour. And it is gluten free and grain free, and tends to be low-allergenic .It is high in fiber, and healthy fats, low carb, and generally low on the allergen list as well. Even though it is a flour, it still contains a decent amount of healthy saturated fats, that are easily and quickly metabolized for energy. Coconut flour is also considered low glycemic and because of its high fiber content, it is helpful in maintaining stable blood sugar. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition show that consuming products with coconut flour will help lower the glycemic impact of the food. However, if you are using it in cookies or other sweetened products, keep in mind, the other sugars will still affect blood sugar levels.
Downside of Coconut Flour – Coconut’s high fiber content can be either good or bad. Coconut flour has a lot of fiber, and much of that fiber comes in the form of inulin. Unfortunately, inulin is considered a FODMAP, which is a type of fiber that can set off digestive symptoms in certain types of people who are sensitive to it. The high fiber, combined with the heavier texture, means very filling, heavy baked goods. Coconut flour tends to ‘suck’ up a lot of the liquids in a recipe, so it generally works better if you make adjustments for the extra liquids, otherwise you may end up with a very dry crumbly texture. Coconut flour can be a bit expensive, but is less than some of the other alternative flours out there. Some people who are allergic to nuts, may also be allergic to coconut as well. Because of the nature of coconut flour to suck up moisture, it’s generally best blended with a fattier flour like almond flour, and that blend usually creates more moist baked goods rather than coconut flour alone.
Almond flour is great for those who want to be gluten and grain free, and also follow a low-carb diet. Almonds, like other nuts, are full of great nutrients like L-arginine, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, and manganese, as well as mononunsaturated fats.
Almond meal or almond flour makes a great Paleo flour that is non-grain based. Almonds are healthy fats, nutrients, and fiber. Although almond flour is heavier, it doesn’t tend to soak up liquids like coconut flour and works well for cookies and other baked goods. Almond flour is low carb, even lower carb than coconut flour, so it’s perfect for a low carb or Paleo or ketogenic diet and is also great for diabetics to keep blood sugar stable. It also has a delicious crunchy texture and works well for coating things like chicken or fish.
Downside of Almond Flour – Almonds contain phytic acid which can be a gut irritant if you consume too much almond flour too often. Almond flour is also high in Omega 6 fats, which can be inflammatory (in excess), especially if you eat a lot of almonds and almond flour—and don’t balance it out with a sufficient amount of healthy Omega 3 fats. Almond flour definitely does NOT work if you have a nut allergy. And if you have a tendency to be sensitive to oxalates in food, almonds should be minimized.
Note on almond flour: Since this flour is more fat-based, it tends to mix well for baking with drier flours like coconut flour or a few of the starchy flours like rice, cassava, or green banana.
Hemp flour and hemp seeds are not the same as marijuana, so no need to worry about getting high. This flour is made from hemp seeds, so is gluten free, grain free and low glycemic, but high in nutrition. Hemp contains all the amino acids and is a great protein source, along with healthy fats. Hemp seeds contain a large amount of Omega 3 fats, although a good part of the oil is removed to make it into flour. Hemp is also rich in vitamins and minerals including vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin. Hemp flour makes great bread and baked goods. Hemp has no gluten and works well if you have any kind of nut allergy. Hemp flour is also full of fiber. Hemp has a delicious, nutty taste, even though it’s safe for those with nut allergies.
Downside of Hemp Flour – Hemp flour is generally greenish-brownish, so if you are making cookies or a cake, keep that mind—it may taste good, but the color may not look very appetizing. Hemp does not rise on its own, so it should be mixed with other flours, or used as a flatbread, pancakes, crackers, or for breading. Hemp flour is not cheap and sometimes harder to find.
I used to think Cassava flour and tapioca flour were the same things, but that is not actually true. While both come from the cassava root, which is also known as yucca or manioc, tapioca starch is actually a highly refined and processed powder extracted from cassava root that goes through a process of washing and pulping. The pulp is then squeezed to extract a starchy liquid, which is then dried and bleached, and the remaining powder is tapioca.
Cassava flour, on the other hand, comes from the whole root, simply peeled, dried and ground. This means it has more dietary fiber, and overall is a less refined, whole food flour. Cassava is full of vitamin C, great for healthy skin, the immune system and an anti-inflammatory.
Cassava flour is starting to become more and more popular as a great gluten-free, grain free flour, with a great versatile consistency similar to regular flour, which makes it a great substitute for regular wheat flour, unlike almond, coconut or hemp flours. It also has a very mild taste and texture, making it work on a 1:1 basis as a perfect substitute for wheat flour.
Downside of Cassava Flour – Unfortunately cassava flour is not low glycemic or low carbohydrate, although it is grain free. Cassava has a very high carbohydrate profile—in fact, it’s double the calories and carbohydrates as a sweet potato, meaning it could easily create insulin spikes and high blood sugar. Because of the higher carb content of this flour, it’s generally best used blended with a high fiber flour like coconut flour and/or a high fat flour like almond flour.
Buckwheat actually contains neither wheat nor gluten, and is not a grain. Buckwheat is actually a seed that provides so many nutritional and antioxidant benefits that it is often considered a superfood. Buckwheat contains a wealth of B vitamins, manganese, magnesium, zinc, iron, folate, and bioflanonoids such as rutin and quercetin which are known anti-inflammatory agents that help allergies, strengthen blood vessels and prevent blood clots. Buckwheat is a great source of protein, containing 12 amino acids. Buckwheat has more protein than rice, wheat, millet or corn.
Buckwheat has the added attraction of being low glycemic, keeping you full for longer and helping keep blood sugar levels low. This also makes it an ideal ‘fat-burning’ food. Studies found that when diabetic patients consumed buckwheat over a two-month period, they experienced a lowering in blood sugar and reduced insulin resistance without any form of medication. Buckwheat works well for baking breads, muffins, crepes, pancakes and other foods.
Downside of Buckwheat – It’s tough to find a downside to this superfood. It is relatively inexpensive, medium-carb, grain-free, gluten-free, low glycemic, full of protein and fiber and other super nutrients. It may be a bit heavy to use on its own for breads, but it’s not bad. The only downside is that it is a deep brown, making your baked goods dark-colored.
Green Banana Flour
One of the newer grain free, gluten free Paleo flour options, green banana flour is similar to cassava flour in how it’s used. This flour comes from dried, pulverized green banana slices and is common in many of the warmer, tropical regions of the world, like Central and South America It’s not very common yet, but it may become one of the more common flour substitutes in the future. Don’t be confused—this is not made from the sweet yellow bananas that are eaten as a fruit, this flour is made from green bananas, and is not sweet—nor does it taste like bananas. The flour has a delicious rich, nutty taste—nothing like bananas. It is a bit heavier though, so use less than you would regular flour. Plantains are rich in iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B, and C.
While green bananas are a starchy food, the starch they contain is resistant starch, which helps to maintain blood sugar levels without an insulin spike, making them good for people who are trying to lose weight or fight diabetes. Resistant starch is not absorbed by the body, so it mostly just passes through your system. This is what makes banana flour lower glycemic, and not as fattening as other flours, as the body cannot absorb all the calories in this flour. Resistant starch is also an excellent prebiotic, which helps to feed and maintain a healthy microbiome, improving your mood, as well as your immune and digestive system.
Downside of Green Banana Flour – Can’t really find a downside of this flour either, it’s an awesome, low glycemic, non grain, gluten free substitute for wheat flour. The only thing is this flour is not white, its brownish green, and is heavier and denser than regular flour, so it may make your baked goods less pretty to the uneducated general public. It is also relatively difficult to find as of yet, and somewhat pricey also.
I had to add this one in! Yes, it’s real crickets it’s made from! While cricket flour is actually made from dried and roasted crickets, it is an amazing gluten free, non grain, high protein flour. It has three times the protein of a steak and twice as much as a piece of chicken! It’s also full of vitamins B2 and B12, iron and calcim. Still feeling squeamish? It doesn’t taste a bit like bugs, you cannot find eyeballs or wings or anything else gross in it. It has a nutty, mild taste and is ultimately much more sustainable than many other plant-based crops used for flour.
Downside of Cricket Flour — Well, you the know, the obvious, it’s from—crickets. But other than that, it’s a bit expensive, and it’s not something you see at the grocery store—yet. But cricket flour is becoming more common, and I think it’s going to be big in the future.
I’ve been gluten-free and mostly grain-free for the last 10 or more years, so I’ve had lots of chances to experiment with some of these flours. Almond flour or hemp flour is great for a heavier, healthier, more filling flour. They make great cookies. I love buckwheat for pancakes, muffins, waffles, etc. Cassava is a great alternative if you want a ‘pretty’ fluffier looking flour that bakes well and is a good substitute for regular flour, and is widely accepted, but it is high carb/high glycemic.
Other flours worth mentioning include garbanzo flour, oat flour, ground flax, rice flour, sorghum flour, amaranth, and teff flours. My best suggestion is to try a few in different recipes, combine some of them, experiment and enjoy!
Mike’s Note (from NutritionWatchDog.com):My personal experience is that it’s almost ALWAYS best to combine some of the alternative flours for the best texture. For example, we make various muffin recipes using a mixture of equal parts coconut flour, almond flour, and green banana flour (or rice flour)… this works well because the higher fat content of the almond flour mixes well with the drier coconut flour, and then adding 1/3 of a starchy flour like green banana or rice flour finishes the blend perfectly, while still maintaining a much lower carb count and lower blood sugar impact. Blending 2 or 3 of these alternative flours usually ends up having the best taste too, whether it’s muffins, pancakes, waffles, etc.
And here’s some additional options listed in an article by Scott O’Reilly on paleo flours:
- Arrowroot flour. The name is derived from the fact that Central American Indians used this plant-based starch to heal poison arrow wounds. They also used it to aid digestion and boost vitality. Today, there’s evidence that arrowroot flour can boost immunity and improve digestion. You can use this flour as a thickener and as an alternative to cornstarch.
- Tapioca starch. This is an inexpensive flour that can be used to make gravy, cupcakes, muffins and pancakes.
- Tigernut flour. The name is something of a misnomer because this flour is derived from a plant root (not a nut) found in North Africa and the Mediterranean. It reportedly helps nurture your good bacteria.
- Sweet potato flour is loaded with nutrients like vitamins A and K. It holds moisture well and is ideal if you’d like sweet-tasting waffles or cupcakes.
In general, each of the paleo flours tends to have their strengths and weaknesses. In most instances, you won’t be able to substitute them at a 1:1 ratio for white flour. However, combining paleo flours (which entails some trial and error) can help you achieve your desired culinary and wellness goals.