White flour is a big part of most people’s day, from bagels and sandwiches to pretzels and cookies. We love our white flour, but this popular ingredient isn’t good for our bodies. So to eat healthy food, must you give up all these tasty items?
Certainly not! Healthy flour options do exist, and with a little experimentation, you can even make your own healthy, delicious baked goods and other foods usually made with white flour.
Why White Flour is Bad
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Refined white flour has very few natural vitamins and minerals. The good-for-you qualities of the whole grain have been stripped away, but even worse, bad-for-you things have been added, such as preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. Even enriched white flour doesn’t contain all the healthy components of whole-grain flours, and it’s absorbed by the body as a starch, which means that it’s energy is used up quickly, rather than slowly and effectively.
White flour may not taste sweet, but it can lead to the same problems caused by eating too much refined sugar:
- An increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol
- An increased risk of some cancers and inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis
- An increased risk of fatty liver disease
- A suppressed immune system
- Fatigue, depression, anxiety, hypoglycemia and other health problems
Many studies demonstrate these concerns. For example, a study found that women who eat a lot of bad carbs, such as white flour, are two times as likely to develop heart disease.
If you want to know more, read our article about using flour in a healthy diet.
If you do eat carbs — say a slice of bread — eat it with a little protein and healthy fat. This way your body will digest the carbs more slowly, which is better for your body. Also eating vegetables along with the carbs is even better. Balanced meals and snacks are best.
Here’s an idea to try when baking: Swap out 1 cup of flour for 1 cup of blacks beans rinsed, cooked, drained and pureed. This replacement cuts some of the calories and adds protein, and works particularly well in brownies.
To make healthier recipes that call for flour, choose whole-grain or other better-for-you products. You can also find products made with whole grains. Here are some flour options, including gluten-free flours:
- Whole wheat flour — be sure to choose whole wheat flour, not wheat flour.
- White whole wheat flour is made with white wheat berries and is more mild-tasting than regular whole wheat.
- Spelt flour has fewer calories than wheat and is higher in protein. When using spelt flour, you don’t want to over-mix it because it will break down.
- Brown rice flour is especially good when combined with other flours, such as teff, buckwheat, or sorghum. It is gluten-free and has a slightly nutty flavor and can be used to thicken soups.
- Coconut flour is gluten-free, high in fiber, low carb, and a good source of protein. Recipes will likely need more liquid when using coconut flour but will require less sugar (or other sweetener) because coconut has a natural sweetness to it. For advice on baking with coconut flour, read Everything to Know About Coconut Flour: The Grain-Free Superfood.
- Soy flour is a gluten-free and grain-free flour that has more protein than white flour and adds a subtle, nutty flavor to recipes. Can be used to thicken recipes.
- Millet flour is gluten-free and adds a subtle flavor and creamy color, plus added vitamins and minerals. It’s best used with a mix of other flours because it can be gritty.
- Amaranth flour is high in protein and gluten-free
- Arrowroot flour is gluten-free, flavorless, and good for thickening recipes.
- Teff flour has more protein and more nutrients than wheat flour.
- Buckwheat flour is made by grinding buckwheat groats, which are actually seeds and not grains, making it both gluten-free and grain-free!
- Oat flour can be used in a 1:1 ratio in most baking recipes, but more liquid needs to be added. Read How to Make Oat Flour to make your own at home!
- Rye flour is gluten-free, darker, and denser than most other types of flour.
- Banana flour can replace any plain or self-rising flour. It has a nutty taste and is both gluten-free and grain-free. Read Why Grain-Free Flours Are the Next Hot Baking Trend to learn more.
- Chickpea flour is gluten-free, grain-free, nut-free, and high in protein. Read 7 Ways to Use Chickpea Flour in Holiday Meals: From Breakfast to Dessert to learn more about how to start using this bean-based flour.
- Tapioca flour is made from cassava root, a starchy type of vegetable, making it gluten-free and grain-free. It adds a sweetness and chewiness to baking. It can also be used a thickener.
- Almond flour is made from ground almonds, so it’s gluten-free and grain-free! It can be used in baking, raw desserts, breads, and to bulk up veggie burgers and falafel.
- Pumpkin seed meal is gluten-free, grain-free, nut-free, and can be used to thicken soups and to add a nutty flavor to recipes.
- Sesame seed meal is a gluten-free, grain-free, and nut-free alternative to flour that is made from ground sesame seeds.
- Sunflower seed meal is gluten-free, grain-free, nut-free, and made from ground sunflower seeds.
- Chia seed meal is made from ground chia seeds. When used in gluten-free baking, liquid levels and cooking time may need to be increased.
- Flax seed meal is made from ground flax seeds and is one of the most popular binders in egg-free baking.
- Hemp flour is made from ground hemp seeds and has a mild, nutty flavor.
- Quinoa flour is gluten-free, grain-free, and one of the most nutritious flours but should not be used alone. It has a light, nutty flavor.
- Corn starch is a flour-like substance made from wheat or corn. It is used as a thickening agent.
- Xanthan gum is a complex carb that adds volume and viscosity in recipes, which usually comes from gluten. It is used as a thickener in salad dressings and other foods.
To get the most health benefits, use sprouted, whole-grain flours: Read why you should bake with sprouted-grain flour.
Some people argue against using almond flour because it’s expensive and because too many omega-6s can be harmful, but if you’re using it in moderation, you should be fine. You might not always want to choose products made with almond flour and bake with it every time you make something. Sprouted almond flour is best.
When using white flour substitutes and gluten-free flours, you usually have to combine several flours to get the same or similar texture and taste. Here are some tips:
- When using whole wheat or other flours, sift the flour two or three times to incorporate air into for baking.
- Try adding a little bit of vital wheat gluten to alternative flours.
- Try adding 2 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder per cup of flour to lighten recipes.
- Adding a little more fat (preferably the healthy kind) to recipes can help keep the final product light, as in pancakes.
- After combining wet and dry ingredients, let the batter sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the flour to absorb the liquid.
Do you know any other tips for baking with white-flour substitutes? Let us know in the comments.