Everything You Need to Know About Grain-Free Flours
If you’ve seen some of my baked good recipes, you know I use cassava flour a lot. I use it because I think it’s the best grain-free, nut-free alternative to wheat flour that exists. It yields high quality baked goods with the chewy, starchy texture of wheat flour.
Many people wonder whether it’s the “healthiest” alternative or not. The answer is, of course, yes and no. Is it better for you than wheat flour? Absolutely. Is it better for you than a salad smoothie? No. But which flour is the best for what you’re trying to make? How do you get the most nutritional benefit without completely sacrificing taste and texture?
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Two Types of Grain-Free Flours
Grain-free flours can generally be put into two categories: “nut” flours and “root” flours. True nut flours are simply dried or roasted peeled nuts, ground into a fine meal–the case with almonds, hazelnuts, and chestnuts. Coconut, sesame, and grape seed flours may also be classified as “nut” flours, though they are not true nuts, but a drupe and seeds, respectively. Nut flours tend to have a higher protein or fat content (with exceptions) and a lower carbohydrate count.
Root flours, on the other hand, tend to have little to no fat content and a high carbohydrate count. However, they may also be high in dietary fiber or something called “resistant starch.” This means they are not absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose, but rather passed through to the large intestine, where they ferment and produce short-chain fatty acids. The starchy roots have to be peeled, washed or soaked, grated, diced, dried, or all of the above before they are ground into flour. Sometimes the starch has to be extracted or separated before it’s ground into flour.
Nut and Seed Flours
Though still considered exotic in the Western diet, coconut is prominent in the diet of nearly one-third of the planet. It has a husky outer layer, a meaty middle layer and a sweet, liquid center. There are many beneficial products made from coconut–oil, milk, cream, and flour. Fresh coconuts are cracked open and the flesh is grated out. It is then squeezed to extract the “coconut cream.” The cream is sold as is or mixed with the liquid center or water for coconut milk and coconut milk beverage. The squeezed flesh can then be dried and ground to a pulpy flour.
Because coconut is not a true nut, but rather a drupe, it is not as high in protein as true nut flours. However, people like coconut flour because it’s extremely high in fiber. A little goes a long way–it is one of the trickier grain-free flours to bake with. It’s a coarser flour that soaks up a lot of moisture, requiring more eggs and liquid in a recipe.
It’s ground up almonds, plain and simple. However, for Plant Paradox you need to make sure you’re getting blanched almond flour–meaning, the skins of the almonds have been removed. Most almond flours are blanched, because the flour looks better and has a better consistency, but it’s good to read the label to be sure. The popularity of almond products has exploded in the past decade, with California alone producing 1.5 million tonnes in 2014.
Because of the increased awareness and demand, almond flour is more likely to be on your grocery store shelves than other grain-free flour. It has all the benefits of almonds–protein, good fats, vitamin E–and a nutty-sweet flavor that yields a delicious baked good. If you’re allergic to nuts, though, or have very severe gut issues, almond flour can wreak havoc on the digestive system (or cause severe allergic reaction), which obviously erases all the good benefits.
The less popular cousin of almond flour, hazelnut flour is simply ground up peeled hazelnuts. Hazelnuts are used in some of the most delicious confections in the world, from pralines to truffles to unique liqueurs (and of course, Nutella). The hazelnut yields a buttery, rich flavor that, when ground into flour, gives a deep nutty richness to pastries, cookies, and other compliant baked goods. It has all the benefits of eating plain hazelnuts–protein, low in carbohydrates, and good fats and can be used in place of ground or chopped hazelnuts in a recipe. Again, though, if you’re allergic or have severe leaky gut, nut flours are not your friend.
Sesame seeds are like the exotic-gone-mainstream of the seed world. They’re all over fast food buns (though its hard to add flavor to cardboard), and you’ve probably eaten them in hummus as a paste (tahini). These tiny bun decorators are actually surprisingly rich in nutrients, though. Sesame seeds contain highly beneficial oil used in lots of Asian cuisine. Like coconut, they’re high in fiber and low in carbohydrates. As a flour, they have a mild, nutty taste that’s similar to almond flour and can be used as an alternative for those allergic to almonds.
Yet another nut that can be roasted, dried, and ground into flour. Best known for its association with crackling fires and Christmas cheer, the chestnut is ground into flour and used around the world in pastries, breads, cakes, pies, pancakes, and even stews and sauces. Chestnuts are the exception to the rule, because they are low in fat and protein and high in starch. They’re also the only nuts that contain vitamin C. Older cultures around the world use chestnut flour because it’s a natural preservative. Its starchy content yields dense, hearty breads, pies, and baked goods that last up to two weeks, unpreserved.
Another thing you didn’t know was a flour, the tiny seeds of grapes contain surprising health benefits. The benefits are so numerous, the compounds are actually extracted to make a dietary supplement that can, in consultation with a doctor, work as a natural antioxidant. Grape seeds are also pressed into oil that has a prized high smoke point and omega-6 fatty acids.
Grape seed flour is actually produced during the winemaking process. And, just like wine, the flour of different grapes yields slightly different texture and flavor. However, it is not a substitute for regular flour. The purpose of using grape seed flour would be for the health benefits, and not for the typical taste and texture of baked goods. You can add it to any baked good or smoothie for a boost of antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals.
There are two types of flour made from the yuca root (not yucca–as in the cactus). Cassava flour is made from the entire root, which is a staple crop for about 800 million people across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It grows year-round in tropical regions, and it’s similar in shape, size, and texture to a sweet potato. To make the flour, the roots are plucked, washed, peeled, inspected, dried, and ground into a fine flour.
People like cassava flour (see my tortilla recipe) because it can be used as a sole substitute for wheat flour (not 1:1) in recipes, and it yields almost the same texture in baked goods (I mean, nothing will ever replace bread, but we can try). It’s high in carbohydrates, has resistant starch (more on that later), and a lower fat and calorie content than other grain-free flours.
Tapioca flour/starch is also made from yuca root; however the starch is first extracted from the roots. When the roots have fully developed, they are harvested and processed to remove toxins. The roots are then repeatedly washed and pulped to allow the starch to separate from the liquid. This starch is then dried and ground into flour. Because of it’s fine texture and starchy content, people like tapioca starch as a thickener in sauces, pies, and soups. It’s smooth and flavorless, and can be used as a replacement for corn starch.
That’s right–the green tropical fruit that you ripen on the counter can be ground into flour. And yes, I know it’s not technically a root. But green bananas have the highest resistant starch content of any root flours, and that means the starch is not absorbed into the body as glucose, but is instead converted into short chain fatty acids in the large intestine. This prevents a spike in blood sugar and leads to a longer feeling of satiety than with simple starches.
To make the flour, unripe bananas are peeled, sliced, dehydrated, and milled. The resulting flour is not sweet and has only a hint of banana flavor. It yields fluffy, light baked goods that don’t have the grainy texture that other root flours sometimes have. A little goes a long way–you can use 30% less flour than you would with some nut flours.
These delicious root vegetables have been a staple in the human diet for over 8000 years. They’re high in fiber, vitamin A, iron, and calcium. They can be dried, peeled, and processed to make a flour that holds moisture well and brings a rich, slightly sweet flavor to baked goods. If you want to make sweet potato bread, pancakes, or gnocchi, this flour can be used with liquid as a substitute for actual sweet potatoes–without sacrificing any of the health benefits. Talk about an excellent time-saver!
Don’t be fooled by the name–these aren’t nuts, but rather small root vegetables that have been part of the human diet for over 2 million (!) years. Like cassava and green bananas, they’re high in resistant starch that is not absorbed as glucose in the small intestine. When ground into flour, the result is a nut-free, starchy product that adds crunchy texture and natural sweetness to compliant baked goods.
Believed by some cultures to have medicinal properties, arrowroot is a tuber covered in paper-like scale. To make flour, they are first washed, and then meticulously cleaned of these paper-like scales. The roots are washed again, drained, and reduced to a pulp. The resulting milky liquid is passed through a coarse cloth, and the pure starch, which is insoluble, settles at the bottom. The wet starch is then dried into a flour that is light, pure, and powdery, like new fallen snow.
Arrowroot starch works wonderfully as a thickener, because it thickens at a lower temperature than corn starch and it also doesn’t cloud the liquid like flour. It yields the smoothest consistency of any grain-free starch and can even be used to prevent ice crystals in homemade ice cream!
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Which flour best suits your needs? Read on to compare the different properties of various flours.
If this ain’t your first health rodeo, you’ve probably experienced the hero-worship of protein. It’s like, if all else fails, at least get your 40 million grams of protein for the day. When I was pregnant, my birth coach literally suggested I eat two steaks for dinner at night. Turns out, the “power of protein” was a little overhyped. Especially animal protein. The stats don’t lie, folks: Vegans live the longest. And it’s not because they’re mixing protein powder and liquid and calling it a meal. They’re getting protein from non-animal food sources like…nut flours, for example.
Which makes a lovely segue into our chart for protein content in flour. Here’s a comparison of the protein content among the 12 grain-free flours (cassava and tapioca are now separate categories, because of the different processing method). Each number represents an average taken from at least three brands of one flour type, and all are per 1/4 cup serving.
It appears sesame flour is the dark horse of protein-rich food. I assumed all the nut and seed flours would have similar numbers. I was surprised to see sesame not only in the lead, but also double the next highest (almond). If you’re looking for sources of non-animal protein, you may consider incorporating sesame flour into your grain-free baking.
Thanks to the newfound popularity of the keto diet, people are looking for more ways to sneak fat into their diet. From bulletproof coffee to fat bombs, methods are getting more creative and meals are getting tastier because who doesn’t love fat!? Combining MCT oils and fatty grain-free flours in baked goods can give you a double dose of the right type of fats your body needs to burn fat for fuel. Here’s a look at the fat content in our 12 grain-free flours:
Back in the realm of normal expectations, almond and hazelnut are leading the way with fat content at 12 grams per 1/4 cup serving. The surprise in this chart came from the tiger nut flour–root flours are known for being starch and little else. Tiger nut flour may turn out to be a “rule-bending” flour in more ways than one.
No, not the evil carbs! If you’re trying to avoid carbs, don’t automatically dismiss flour with a high carb count. Some of these flours are more resistant to absorption as glucose than others. Let’s first take a look at the general carbohydrate content for our 12 grain-free flours. Then we’ll delve a little further into what percentage of these flours we actually absorb as a carbohydrate.
If you are leading a low carb lifestyle, and you want something that’s high in fat, but low on fiber and other beneficial carbs, almond, hazelnut, and sesame flours are your best bet. However, these flours by themselves do not yield the best baked goods. We often need a starch to get the right kind of texture. You’ll soon learn that some carbs are better than others.
Different Types of Carbs
Sugar is sugar, no matter how you ingest it. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting sugar via fruit or Skittles. The body digests it the same way, by absorbing it as glucose or fructose. Some of these flours do contain naturally occurring sugars. If you’re aiming to avoid all sugar, take a look at this chart for comparison.
Keep in mind, though, that there are factors that can affect the glycemic index of a food source. Just because a vegetable or nut has naturally occurring sugars, doesn’t mean it will spike your blood sugar when consumed. Things like protein/fiber content, processing method, and makeup of the starch can all have a positive impact on sugar content. Remember, all of the 12 grain-free flours discussed in this article are low on the glycemic index.
Although fiber is a carbohydrate, it doesn’t contain any calories because the human body doesn’t break it down. It’s resistant to digestion and absorption into the bloodstream; therefore, it does not raise blood glucose levels. If you are counting carbs, you can subtract the number of grams of fiber from the total carb count. Let’s take a look at the dietary fiber content in our 12 grain-free flours.
And now you can see why grape seed flour is so beneficial in small amounts. I wouldn’t suggest making an entire loaf of grain-free bread out of grape seed flour. Not only would it taste awful, but you’d likely be doubled over with gastrointestinal cramps for several hours.
Coconut and tiger nut flours have a beneficial amount of dietary fiber, making their already moderate “carb count” significantly lower. Tiger nut flour, however, has even more benefits in the form of a starch that acts much like dietary fiber.
Starch is not all bad. The key to understanding which starches are good for our body is to look at something called the amylose/amylopectin ratio.
There are two types of starch:
- Amylopectin or “rapidly digested starch” is the one we most want to avoid–its molecular structure is easily digested and absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose, causing a temporary spike in blood sugar, followed by a “crash.”
- Amylose or slowly digested starch has a structure that is harder for enzymes to break down, leading to slower absorption and a slower rise in blood sugar. The higher the amylose content is of a particular food, the higher it is in something called resistant starch. Resistant starch is nature’s “carb-free” gift to the starch world. Much like dietary fiber, it resists digestion and absorption and instead produces short chain fatty acids in the large intestine, which means longer satiety and no spike in blood sugar.
The high carb flours that will feed our healthy gut bacteria and make us feel full the longest are the ones that have a lot of fiber and/or a high amylose and resistant starch content. Scientists are able to extract starch from various foods and analyze it to determine the amylose/amylopectin ratio. Results vary widely, depending on the species of tuber/fruit and the method used to extract and analyze.
It’s impossible to say exactly how much resistant starch a particular flour has. We can, however, look at a range of numbers taken from different studies. The following chart represents an average percent amylose content for each starchy food, taken from multiple studies (listed after):
I want to stress again that this chart is not the end-all-be-all of resistant starch content. There are many factors that can affect the resistant starch content, including species and maturity of the root/fruit. Bananas, for example, are the highest in resistant starch when green. However, when they begin to ripen, that starch is converted into amylopectin, and all those beneficial gut feeders are turned into glucose bombs.
You may have heard that raw potato starch is very high in resistant starch, and it is. Raw. As soon as it’s heated, all of that resistant starch is converted, and who wants to eat raw potato starch?
How to Choose
Having trouble choosing a flour. Read my post on the “Winners Circle” of grain free flours.