May 2018 Issue
Alternative Gluten-Free Flours
By Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN
Vol. 20, No. 5, P. 28
As gluten-free diets continue to rise in popularity, so too do the offerings in the flour category.
The art of gluten-free baking has transformed tremendously over the last decade and continues to be fine-tuned. As more gluten-free flour alternatives have become available, those living with celiac disease and nonceliac gluten sensitivity no longer have to forego their beloved breads and baked goods. Some of the most common choices include rice, quinoa, oat, potato, chickpea, and almond flour. (Note that gluten-free recipes often call for a blend of flours and starches to achieve similar texture, leavening, and baking properties as traditional wheat-based products.) Once only found in specialty grocery stores, gluten-free flour options have risen in popularity and are more widely available in mainstream supermarkets and used in many bakeries. Now, curious home cooks can make gluten-free recipes that taste as good as those sold by professional bakers and chefs.
However, with the growing prevalence of food allergies, food sensitivities, and intolerances, as well as the interest in new and nutritious foods, alternative gluten-free flours have been introduced to the marketplace in recent years such as banana, sweet potato, pumpkin, wine, and coconut. Culinary nutritionist and cofounder of The Modern Loaf Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, CDN, says the original gluten-free products that were available were all about providing options for people with celiac disease and nonceliac gluten sensitivity, who had a very limited diet if they didn't cook their meals at home. However, Begun says, "now that options abound, consumers are seeking gluten-free 2.0—in other words, better tasting and more nutritious options." Whether these new alternative flours are used to replace or supplement previously used gluten-free flours in recipes, they're certainly holding their place in the cooking and baking worlds, especially for those with specific diet needs.
In With the New
The new alternative gluten-free flours that are becoming popular include banana, sweet potato, pumpkin, and wine, all of which are also grain-free, nut-free, and legume-free, which is appealing to people who need to avoid or limit these foods and ingredients. Despite the fact that the FDA recognizes coconut as a tree nut, coconuts and coconut flour generally doesn't trigger an allergic response in those who have peanut and tree nut allergies.
While each of these flours has its own unique set of baking characteristics, Begun says that one thing they all have in common is their environmental impact. "Sustainability of our food supply and preventing food waste is on everyone's mind. Food manufacturers are taking the imperfect bananas and sweet potatoes that used to be rejected for sale to the consumer and repurposing them as flour, thereby making these commodities go further."
A couple of things to note about these new alternatives is that they're more expensive than other more common grain-based flours and none of them is meant to be used on its own. "They have to be blended with other flours in precise proportions, so there's quite a bit of a learning curve to using them," Begun says.
Each of these new alternative gluten-free flour options is described in more detail below, but collectively they're best used in quick breads, muffins, cookies, and granola bars. Wine flour and sweet potato flour are also good thickeners, perfect for sauces and fruit pie fillings.
Unripe green bananas are peeled, sliced, dehydrated, and ground to make this alternative gluten-free flour. Since it has a higher starch content, banana flour can closely mimic traditional grain-based flours, and, unlike other gluten-free flours that often need to be part of a blend, banana flour works well on its own. However, using about 30% less banana flour than the suggested flour in a recipe will yield the best results.
Each 1/4-cup serving of banana flour contains about 110 kcal, 26 g carbohydrate, and 2 g fiber. The texture is light and fluffy, and when baked into recipes there's barely any hint of banana flavor, which makes this flour a good substitute in most recipes that call for other flours.
One of the reasons banana flour is gaining popularity is because it's a good source of resistant starch, which isn't digested in the small intestine, resulting in less insulin response and lower rise in blood sugar than other types of flour. Resistant starch acts as a prebiotic, providing food for the good bacteria in the gut, thereby producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are important for digestive health; they may protect against certain forms of cancer and may improve insulin sensitivity.1,2 Resistant starch is lost as food is cooked, so to get the full benefits of green banana flour it's best to include it in no-bake recipes.
Banana flour is a particularly good gluten-free choice for clients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome who follow a low-FODMAP (fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols) diet, according to EA Stewart, RDN, nutrition coach and blogger on gluten-free topics at The Spicy RD. Stewart says, "Because resistant starch is fermented slowly in the large intestine, it leads to less gas formation than other fibers while still promoting a healthy gut microbiome."
Sweet Potato Flour
Sweet potatoes are dried and milled into a naturally sweet flour with about 110 kcal, 6 g fiber, and 24 g carbohydrate per 1/4-cup serving. Sweet potato flour is also rich in fiber and vitamins A and C. While sweet potato flour works well in both sweet and savory recipes, especially quick breads, pasta, cookies, and as a breading or coating, the naturally sweet flavor goes especially well with chocolate and spices. A benefit of using sweet potato flour in baked goods is that the amount of sugar in the recipe can be reduced due to the natural sweetness of the flour.
Begun notes that sweet potato flour works well as a thickener for gravies and sauces, and because it retains moisture well, it can encourage browning in baked goods. However, be warned that if the recipe contains baking soda, the end product could be various shades of green.
When using sweet potato flour in a flour blend, brands such as Healthier Way recommend not using more than 25% of sweet potato flour and reducing the amount of liquid by 15% to 25% since the flour is less absorbent. If using only sweet potato flour, the recipe should be cooked at a lower temperature than regular flours.
Pumpkin flour is made by removing the seeds (which aren't used to make the flour), drying the flesh of the pumpkins, and grinding it to a fine powder in a food processor. The naturally sweet and earthy flavors of pumpkin flour make it a suitable substitute for baked goods in the fall. Each 1/4-cup serving contains about 100 kcal, 20 g carbohydrate, and 4 g fiber. As with sweet potato flour, pumpkin flour usually isn't used as a sole replacement for traditional flour, but can replace up to 25% of the flour used in recipes—and less liquid should be used as well.
Pumpkin flour mixes well with nut and rice flours and can be used in many recipes such as quick breads, cookies, brownies, pancakes, and smoothies.
Wine flour is a great example of a sustainable product, as it's made from fermented grape skins. After all of the juice is pressed out of wine grapes, the skins are dried and ground into a fine powder, which has the stunning color, flavor, and aroma of a glass of wine without the alcohol. As Hilary Niver-Johnson, founder of Sustainable Viticulture Systems, which produces Wine Flour, likes to say, "Now you can quite literally drink your wine, and eat it, too!"
Like wine, wine flour boasts the benefits of antioxidants in addition to other nutrients such as fiber, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron. Each 1/4-cup serving contains about 140 kcal, 24 g carbohydrates, and 12 g fiber.
Due to its high fiber and protein content, wine flour is meant to be used as a supplement to recipes rather than a replacement for traditional flours. "The best way to think of [wine flour] is adding depth to recipes through its flavor, color, and nutrition. Wine flour elevates flavors and is best when used with other (gluten-free) flours, unless you're thickening a stew or a pie filling, in which case you can use it on its own," Niver-Johnson says.
Despite its attributes, there's a potential downside to wine flour. "If people do not understand that it should be used like cocoa powder in baking, and they try to use it as a one to one ratio, they will not be happy with the result," Niver-Johnson says. (The proper baking ratio when using wine flour is 1:8, or two tablespoons per cup. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of traditional flour, you'd add two tablespoons of wine flour to the recipe, not swap a full cup of wine flour.)
With this knowledge, wine flour can be used in a variety of ways. Emily Kyle, MS, RDN, owner of Emily Kyle Nutrition, who has used wine flour on more than one occasion, says, "It works best in recipes that would benefit from a sweet, grape taste and could easily pair with the beautiful natural coloring. Think pancakes, muffins, smoothies, and yogurt."
But don't dismiss pairing wine flour with more savory dishes. Kyle also recommends using it in stews or a cheese sauce. Since wine flour has the same flavor as wine, remember to pair it with other foods accordingly. For example, red wine flour would make a great rub for steak and pairs well with red berries and dark fruits, whereas white wine flour would be a great thickener for turkey gravy and goes best with apples, peaches, and citrus fruits.
Made from dried and ground defatted coconut meat, coconut flour is a high-fiber and low-carbohydrate alternative with a naturally sweet and nutty flavor. It contains about 120 kcal, 18 g carbohydrate, and 10 g fiber per 1/4-cup serving.
Coconut flour works well as a replacement for regular flour and cornmeal when coating proteins like chicken and fish, but baking with it tends to be a more delicate and tricky process due to the high fiber content. It's generally recommended that 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup coconut flour is used in place of 1 cup of grain-based flours. Coconut flour is also highly absorbent, which helps retain moisture and inhibit staling but also means more liquid is needed in a recipe to accommodate for greater absorption.
Companies that sell coconut flour, such as Bob's Red Mill, recommend starting off by substituting up to 20% of a recipe's flour content with coconut flour, as well as adding an equal amount of water to compensate for the high fiber content. It's also recommended to follow an established recipe that specifically calls for coconut flour before experimenting further. Recipes that work best with coconut flour include pancakes, muffins, and quick breads.
— Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN, is a nationally recognized nutrition expert with a focus on culinary nutrition and communications. You can read more of her articles and find her recipes at JessicaLevinson.com. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @jlevinsonrd.
1. Nugent AP. Health properties of resistant starch. Nutr Bull. 2005;30(1):27-54.
2. Maki KC, Pelkman CL, Finocchiaro ET, et al. Resistant starch from high-amylose maize increases insulin sensitivity in overweight and obese men. J Nutr. 2012;142(4):717-723.