By Debra Soufleris, B.S., DTR
White flour has been a kitchen staple in households around the world. It is a common ingredient to use for making bread, pasta, pizza, and pastries—but unfortunately, store-bought white flour is so refined that it is stripped of all of its natural fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Thus, making it a source of empty calories. Foods high in white flour have a high glycemic index (GI) and cause sudden spikes in blood sugar levels. The higher the GI number, the faster it spikes blood sugar. For comparison, white flour has a GI of 71, compared to table sugar, which has a GI of 63—making white flour even worse than sugar. Regular consumption of white flour products is associated with overeating, obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes. With this in mind, what are the best flour substitutions? Keep reading to find out.
White flour starts as a whole grain with three main parts: endosperm, germ, and bran. The bran is the outer coating, and the germ is the innermost layer. The endosperm is in the middle, which is the starchy part and is mostly made of carbs. Manufacturers remove the healthy germ and bran layers when processing white flour, which leaves just the starchy endosperm. The endosperm is very shelf-stable, but this process quickly degrades flour’s nutrients.
The refining process also makes flour very acidic. The acidity in the flour, when consumed in high amounts, forces your body to take calcium from your bones—which can negatively affect bone density levels. High levels of acidity in the body can also cause chronic inflammation, leading to a whole host of chronic conditions like arthritis.
White flour also contains gluten, which is very problematic for many. Gluten is a type of protein found in many grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten contributes to the elasticity of baked products and helps shape and bind food together. Since so many people have difficulty digesting gluten, which can damage the walls of the small intestines and be the trigger for many autoimmune diseases and cause inflammation, finding an alternative is critical.
Luckily, recent and ongoing advancements in food development make it possible for people to enjoy their favorite foods without having to use white flour as the main ingredient. There are so many healthier flour substitutions on the market that can replace white flour in many recipes. Each one has unique properties and flavor profiles.
Almond flour is made solely of ground whole almonds. It is a great option for low carb eaters, and popular with those following a keto, paleo, or gluten-free diet plan. ¼ cup has 150 calories, 6 grams of carbs, and 3 grams of fiber—with just 3 grams of total net carbs (total carbs minus fiber). Compare that to white flour, which contains 110 calories, 23 grams of carbs, and 0 grams of fiber. Also, almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E, which promotes healthy, glowing skin and helps prevent inflammation.
Coconut flour can make a great white flour substitute for so many baked treats because it naturally adds a slightly sweet flavor to recipes. Coconut flour is also low in carbs and provides 10 grams of fiber per ¼ cup to help keep you full and satisfied. It also has 6 grams of protein and provides 20% of your daily iron needs, which many of us fall short on. Additionally, it packs medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are known to protect against heart disease and provide immediate energy.
Buckwheat flour can make for a good substitute for those following a gluten-free diet. Buckwheat cooks and bakes very much like white flour and has a rich, nutty flavor. It contains a whopping 13 grams of protein, 10 grams of filling fiber, and 100 calories per ¼ cup, making this a nutritional powerhouse. However, since it does have a distinctive flavor, it works well when mixed with other flour varieties. Experiment with mixing flours to find your favorite combination.
Oat flour is one of my go-to-flours for making healthy breakfast muffins. If you follow a gluten-free diet, be sure to buy a brand that states it is, in fact, gluten-free. A ¼ cup serving of gluten-free oat flour contains 112 calories, 4 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fiber. Although oat flour is a significant source of carbs, it contains high-quality complex carbs that help stabilize blood sugar levels to reduce a spike in insulin and help keep you fuller for longer. You can always add a few spoonfuls of fiber-rich cereal to the mix before grinding your oats into flour to boost the fiber content.
Tiger nut is not actually a nut; it’s a root vegetable, making it perfect for those with nut allergies. A ¼ cup serving provides 10 grams of fiber, 120 calories, and 10% of your iron needs. It is also heart-healthy since it contains oleic acid and monounsaturated fats, which help lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDLs) in the blood.
Cassava flour is not well-known but is made from fibrous cassava root and is naturally gluten-free. It is non-allergenic and provides 71% of your daily vitamin C and 40% of your daily manganese requirements, which helps with immunity and fighting free radicals that protect against cancer formation. Try this flour substitute when you need an allergen-free alternative.
Spelt flour typically comes in two forms, whole and refined. Whole spelt is the healthier option and is a great source of fiber with 3 grams per ¼ cup serving. It contains 110 calories and provides 8% of your iron needs, which helps facilitate red blood cell turnover. It is important to note that spelt flour is not gluten-free, and cannot be used by people with a gluten allergy or intolerance.
Tapioca flour is a starchy white flour that helps bind ingredients together, thus improving the texture of many baked goods. It also works well as a gluten-free option that can help thicken sauces and Asian dishes like stir-frys. Since it is lower in calories, containing only 93 calories per ¼ cup, it can make for a great low-cal swap for traditional flours. However, tapioca flour is best used as part of a flour mix to boost its nutritional profile, as it does not contain any fiber or protein.
With a very similar profile as tapioca flour, arrowroot flour is gluten-free, and grain-free. Because of this, it is compatible with wellness trends like the paleo diet. In addition, it is great for binding soups and thickening sauces as an alternative to cornstarch. Arrowroot flour provides an impressive amount of folate, 84% of the daily requirement, which facilitates DNA synthesis and cell division. Folate is also an extremely important nutrient for those looking to get pregnant or currently going through pregnancy, as it supports fetal development.
As you can see, there are plenty of healthier alternatives that can replace traditional white-flour in many of your cooking and baking needs. Whether you are searching for an alternative due to an allergy or food sensitivity, or trying to lose weight or reduce your carb intake, there are many options out there to choose from. Although each variety of flour will not act exactly like traditional white flour, it will take a bit of trial and error to find your perfect substitute. You might just find your perfect blend by mixing one or two of the different types of flour substitutes together—and even gain more nutrients.