Flour. Where would we be without it? We use it to bread our meats, thicken our sauces, bake our cookies, and otherwise fill our bellies, but most of us have a love-hate relationship with flour. We love the taste and texture it gives the foods we hold dear, but we hate what it does to our waistlines… and our complexions, our joints, our GI tracts, our arteries, and our brains.iii Consuming flour can negatively affect the whole body, and we can’t sneak around this unfortunate truth by hiding behind a bag of whole grain flour. Flour milled from grain (whole grain or not) creates a profound blood sugar spike, which in turn negatively affects nearly every part of the body. Be careful about those gluten-free goodies too, as most gluten-free baked goods are made with refined gluten-free flours that also spike blood sugar.
In addition to the large spikes in blood sugar, grain flours can lead to serious gastrointestinal issues, including leaky gut, which can set the stage for the development of a number of autoimmune diseases. Bottom line? Flours made from grains can be detrimental to your health, especially when eaten on a regular basis. But the good news is that there are a number of grain-free flours widely available and you’ll find that not only are they easy to use, but they are also a lot easier on the body.
Grain-free flours are inherently gluten free, and they generally tend to deliver a more balanced ratio of carbohydrate to fat and protein so they are less likely to spike blood sugar. You can use these alternative flours for everything from making baked goods to thickening soups, stews, and sauces to making breading for meats and vegetables – once you get used to them, they really are quite versatile.
Made from coconut meat that has been dried, defatted, and finely ground. Coconut flour’s claim to fame is a very high fiber content, making it very low in digestible carbohydrate and very good for blood sugar balance. Coconut flour can be as high as 60 percent fiber, with most of that fiber being the insoluble type (the kind that keeps things moving in the digestive tract). Coconut flour has a light taste and texture, but cannot be used as the sole substitute in a recipe designed for wheat flour. You can, however, use coconut flour as 15-20 percent of your flour blend without much change in the final product. Or you can use recipes created for coconut flour such as those found in Cooking with Coconut Flour by Bruce Fife. Coconut flour has such a high fiber content that it absorbs liquid more readily than other flours; it also swells, so a little coconut flour goes a long way. It also tends to clump, so it should be sifted first for best results.
Nut flours are made by grinding nuts into a flour-like consistency. They are heavier than traditional flours made from grains, but they bring with them the health benefits of the nut they are made from, not to mention flavor. Nut flours (sometimes referred to as “nut meal”) can come from almost any nut. You can buy many pre-ground, or you can grind your own nut flour in a food processor – just be careful not to grind too much or you will have nut butter! One thing to keep in mind when using nut flours – nuts tend to have high levels of phytates and oxalates. Phytates can bind to minerals, especially calcium, iron, and zinc, reducing their absorption; however, in moderate quantities, phytates don’t appear to cause major problems. It is when they are eaten in excess that there is concern that they can cause mineral deficiencies. Phytates may also reduce digestive enzymes, inhibiting the ability to digest carbohydrates and protein. Soaking, sprouting, and roasting nuts help to reduce phytates.iiiiv Oxalates are often avoided by those with a tendency to develop kidney stones; oxalates may also interfere with calcium absorption.
It doesn’t appear that moderate amounts of phytates or oxalates are harmful to the average healthy person. As with most things, it is about finding the right balance. If you rely heavily on nuts in your diet, it would be wise to take precautions such as sprouting and soaking them. If you know you need to watch oxalates in your diet, search out an accurate list of foods that contain oxalates and plan your diet accordingly.
Tapioca flour is another grain-free flour option. It is from the root of the cassava plant and native to South America. Tapioca flour is most commonly used as a thickening agent and is also used in glutenfree baking to add lightness. While it is generally not used as the sole flour in a recipe, traditional Brazilian Cheese Bread is an exception that has caught on here in the States. Tapioca is very high in starch and may not be appropriate for those trying to lose weight or those with blood sugar imbalances.
From the tropical arrowroot plant is most commonly used as a thickener. It is a high starch food with a calcium ash, meaning that it helps maintain a proper acid to alkaline balance in the body. It is more easily digested than wheat and has twice the thickening power. Arrowroot is a great addition to baked goods made with nut flours because it adds lightness and helps to bind. When using it to thicken liquids, it is best to mix it with cold water first.
Now that you’re familiar with these alternative flours, you’re ready to go. Just remember that these alternative flours are all gluten-free and will not create products identical to their gluten-containing counterparts. Try a few recipes, like the one below, to begin to get a feel for how these flours are to work with before you start making substitutions in your own recipes. With just a little practice you’ll be creating fabulous new grain-free dishes and baked goods for your friends and family.
¾ cup coconut flour
½ cup toasted pecan halves
8 tablespoons chilled butter or coconut oil
2 tablespoons coconut sugar
¼ teaspoon sea salt 3 large eggs
Heat oven to 350°
Toast pecans in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat.
Combine coconut flour, pecans, butter (or coconut oil), coconut sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse until combined and pecans are finely chopped. Add the eggs and pulse until a dough forms. Press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Set aside until ready to fill.
1/3 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup coconut milk
1 15-oz can pumpkin
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, honey, vanilla, and coconut milk. Stir in pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, and cinnamon. Mix until all ingredients are well combined and pour into prepared crust. Place on a baking sheet and bake in a 350° for 45 minutes to 1 hour. A toothpick should come out clean when inserted into center of pie. Cool before serving.