With many of us weaning ourselves off of the white stuff, what are the good grains to go for, and which faux flours come up short?
Mintel reports that demand is growing worldwide for wheat and white flour alternatives, and one of the market intelligence agency’s main forecasts in terms of dietary consumer choices is telling:
“The growing ranks of potential ‘replacements’ appeal to the everyday consumer, foreshadowing a profoundly changed marketplace in which what was formerly ‘alternative’ could take over the mainstream.”
One area where the ‘alternative’ is flourishing is in the flour aisle, with even the most traditional of family shows, The Great British Bake Off, dedicating entire weeks to baking with different flour varieties, excluding the bog standard white staple. From increasing awareness of coeliac disease and intolerances to a simple desire to live a healthier lifestyle and cut back on refined, over processed food, previously unheard of flours are finding themselves in the spotlight, subjected to a national taste test.
Given white flour’s rap as both nutrient poor and high GI, not to mention low in fibre, it’s no surprise that we’re dabbling in new and long forgotten flour types. The thing is, we could also be spending much more in the process, occasionally for debatable gain in the nutrition department. We asked top nutritional therapist Lily Soutter for her cut out and keep guide for a selection of flour alternatives on the market. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it’ll give you the lay of the land.
Wholewheat flour beats refined white flour any day. The flour includes the outer shell called the ‘bran’, which is where all the goodness lies.
The bran contains high amounts of soluble fibre which is needed for healthy digestion as well regular bowel movements. Due to the high gluten content of wheat, it is extremely easy to use within cooking.
The wheat consumed today is very different to the wheat consumed by previous generations. Over the last hundred years, wheat crops have been genetically modified to contain triple the amount of gluten than they once did, in order to make sturdier crops.
Unfortunately this rise in gluten may be partly responsible for an increase in gluten sensitivities and coeliac disease .
Spelt is an ancient form of wheat, therefore the gluten content is much lower than regular modern wheat. Whilst the nutritional profile of wholewheat and spelt are similar, spelt is often preferred as it typically leads to less digestive upset, particularly for those who have sensitivities to gluten.
Despite spelt containing a lower gluten content than wholewheat, it is important to remember that spelt is not gluten free and is not suitable for coeliacs.
Coconut flour comes about from drying and grinding coconut meat.
It’s a great alternative to wheat for coeliacs, for those following a paleo diet , as well as for those on a low carb diet. Not only is coconut flour gluten-free, it is also a source of healthy fats and is extremely rich in fibre.
For those suffering from IBS , large amounts of coconut flour may cause bloating, gas and digestive symptoms. This is because coconut flour is rich inulin, a fibre which should be avoided by those following a low FODMAP diet .
Despite its name, buckwheat is not a grain, but a fruit seed that is related to rhubarb and sorrel. High in antioxidants and magnesium ( nature’s tranquiliser ), plus it’s completely wheat and gluten-free. Buckwheat has also been found to contain a compound called chiro-inositol which has been shown to normalise blood sugar levels.
Buckwheat is best used in sweet and savoury pancakes as well as crackers and some breads.
Although it’s name incorporates the word ‘wheat’, it has very different properties to wheat flour. Therefore it is important to remember this flour will not rise in the same way, and will react and cook differently to regular wheat.
Rye is a gluten containing cereal grain which can be used in a similar way to whole wheat. Rye also contains similar health benefits to wheat.
However, some would consider rye to be a healthier alternative as it has a lower Glycaemic Index in comparison to wheat, therefore it’s a better choice for balancing blood sugar.
Rye also contains much less gluten than wheat, hence it is easier to digest for those with gluten sensitivities.
Many mistake rye for a gluten-free flour, however this is not the case, and rye cannot be consumed by coeliacs. It’s also worth bearing in mind that because rye contains a lower gluten content than whole wheat, unfortunately it will not produce a light, fluffy bake or loaf , unlike bread, loaves and other baking products made from wholewheat.
An ancient food of the Aztecs, amaranth is another grain pretender. It is in fact a seed of the amaranth plant, which was once considered a weed. Highly nutritious and packed full of protein, amaranth is also totally wheat and gluten-free. This tiny but nutritionally mighty seed out-performs whole wheat, not only when it comes to protein but also in the categories of fibre and healthy fats, and in a number of minerals and vitamins as well.
Amaranth comes with a high price tag and is not easy to source. It also has a high Glycaemic Index, therefore can disrupt blood sugar if eaten in large amounts.
This is an amazing gluten-free alternative to wheat flour. Almond flour is made from ground almonds and is suitable for those on a gluten-free, paleo and low carb diet. Almonds are full of protein, healthy fats, calcium, iron, fibre and vitamin E.
Almond flour can be used to make delicious gluten-free flourless cakes, tarts, pancakes and pastries.
Almond flour comes with a hefty calorie content, with just one cup providing 640 calories. It is important to portion control any dish or bake made with almond flour.
Almond flour also contains delicate fats which can be oxidized and damaged when cooked at high temperatures. If possible, always cook your almond flour at lower temperatures.
Produced from raw quinoa seeds, this flour is not only naturally gluten-free but also light and fluffy. A seed of a plant related to related to spinach, swiss chard and beets, quinoa flour makes a nutritious gluten-free substitute for baking breads, waffles and cakes.
Quinoa flour is also an excellent source of plant based protein, providing us with all 20 essential amino acids.
Apart from the hefty price tag, there are no real cons when it comes to using quinoa flour. It may not produce bread that’s as light and fluffy as a loaf of wholewheat, but it still does a pretty good job.
Have you heard about the sprouted flour revolution?
Follow Lily on Instagram @Lily_Soutter_Nutrition and on Twitter @LilySoutterNutrition