Ask the RD: What’s the Healthiest Gluten-Free Flour?

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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Gluten is formed when two of the proteins in wheat flour — glutenin and gliadin — come in contact with water. The gluten in flour affects the texture and elasticity of dough, making artisan bread airy, pizza dough bubbly and stretchy, waffles tall and fluffy and pastries light and feathery.

However, if you have an allergy or food sensitivity and are gluten-free, you likely know alternative flours are not like their white, wheat-based counterpart, and navigating the market for a good flour substitute can be overwhelming.

Luckily, within the past decade, there’s been a boom of offerings in the gluten-free product category. In fact, there are quite a few gluten-free flours that are also healthy options. The key is to know what you are working with and your desired outcome.

THE KEY TAKEAWAY
When picking any gluten-free flour, it’s important to keep this rule in mind: Choose a flour that is minimally processed and comes from a single whole ingredient.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF GLUTEN-FREE FLOURS

  • Almond flour has a mild, sweet flavor and is easy to find, thanks not only to gluten-free eaters but also to Paleo and keto-dieters. It’s low in carbohydrates (10g per 1/4 cup versus 25g in traditional wheat flour) and high in protein and heart-healthy fats (6g protein and 11g fat per 1/4 cup), which keeps baked treats moist and tender and adds a nutty flavor. It can also, however, make them dense, which is why it’s not the best for bread.

Best use: In muffins, waffles, pancakes or cracker recipes; as a thickener or filler in sauces and meatballs and to bread chicken or fish before baking or pan-searing.

  • Coconut flour is a healthy and accessible gluten-free flour, but the conversion is slightly different. Made by drying and grinding coconut meat, coconut flour is low in carbohydrates and higher in fiber with more than 10g per 1/4-cup serving. It’s highly absorbent, making it more difficult to use if you are trying to mimic regular flour — try only using about 1/4 cup coconut flour for every cup of grain-based flour. Coconut flour is nutrient-dense and lends a mild coconut flavor to your recipe.

Best use: In pancakes, muffins and quick breads.

  • Buckwheat flour is not derived from wheat (it’s a pseudo-grain), and it is gluten-free, so don’t let the name fool you. High in fiber (9g per 1/4 cup), potassium and antioxidants, buckwheat tends to be crumbly in texture and is best when combined with a softer, more mild flour like brown rice flour. It has a very distinctive, earthy flavor and does not make a good 1:1 substitute. Buckwheat flour complements nut-, dairy- and fruit-based dishes.

Best use: In pancakes, crepes, waffles and homemade pasta.

  • Oat flour can easily be made at home by grinding oats in a food processor or blender. Oat flour is high in fiber, nutrient-rich and behaves much like wheat flour, lending fluffiness to baked goods. It has a mild flavor that works well in savory and sweet dishes.

Best use: In cookies and quick breads and to thicken casseroles or sauces.

  • Brown rice flour can usually be substituted 1:1 with white flour. Baking with brown rice flour may require additional liquid. It has a mild flavor and smooth texture and works well in a number of recipes. Try it in place of wheat flour in these apple cinnamon breakfast cookies.

Best use: To thicken sauces, soups and gravies, and in muffins, cookies and quick breads.

  • Gluten-free blend flour substitutes are processed and contain a number of unusual ingredients, including milk powders and processed binders. Look for those with a gluten-free whole-grain (such as one listed above) as the first item on an otherwise short ingredient list. This one was developed by celeb chef Thomas Keller and is made from brown rice flour (with added flaxseed and rice bran for extra omega-3 fatty acids) and can be used as a direct substitute for any wheat-based flour. Here is another one that is easy to find and made from ancient grains, with no added starches.

Best use: These blends can be used as you would traditional flour.

  • Bean flours are milled from dried, whole beans like fava beans and chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), bean flours are high in protein and fiber. Spoiler alert: They taste like beans. Do not use bean flour if you are looking for something neutral in flavor.

Best use: In savory recipes that need a thickening agent and dinner-worthy pancakes like these chickpea pancakes.

  • Sweet potato flour is made from dried sweet potatoes. This gluten-free alternative is high in protein and fiber. It’s also high in natural sugar, with 9 grams per 1/4 cup, which makes it a good choice for baked goods.

Best use: Try it in baked goods like muffins, brownies, waffles and pancakes and keep added sugar to a minimum.

THE BOTTOM LINE
If you are shopping for gluten-free flour then you are likely cooking more meals at home, which is a great habit to get into for living a healthier lifestyle. There are countless options on the market, each with different tastes, textures, cooking properties and nutrient composition. Choose flours with a single ingredient or just a few that are rich in fiber and protein. Remember, certain gluten-free varieties may work better in specific recipes and it may take trial and error with your favorite recipes to get it just right.

About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.

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