All About Flour - Ask a Nutritionist

March 16, 2023

Did you know that some flour is more nutritious than others? Did you know that wheat flour has many alternatives, like almond flour, coconut flour, tapioca flour and much more. Tune in to this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist with Leah to learn all about flour.

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now, let's get started.

LEAH: Well, good morning and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's new midweek segment called “Ask a Nutritionist”. My name is Leah Kleinschrodt. I'm a Registered and Licensed Dietitian with Nutritional Weight and Wellness. And on today's show I will be answering two related nutrition questions we've received from our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners in the last few weeks.

Traditional flour: processing and blood sugar response

So these listeners wrote the first question: “What is the most nutritious flour?” And then the second question we received that was related to this is, “Do we have any suggestions for gluten-free flours?” So great questions. I think this is going to be interesting to a lot of the listeners and it's something that comes up when I counsel clients or like just related questions like these. So I think these are really great.

Let's start off with that first question about what is the most nutritious flour? I think there's a lot of ways that we could tackle this question. I'm going to try to keep it pretty simple, pretty streamlined, and just give some of my thoughts around this. And so just know there's a lot of nuance behind this, but just a couple of thoughts. I think usually when people hear that term flour, and again, so we're talking about like flour that you bake with, so f l o u r, and not like the springtime flowers that are hopefully around the corner here.

But when you think about flour, I think most people are thinking about regular old wheat flour. So we're going to start there. When you think about wheat flour and even think about like your typical all-purpose wheat flour, this is, this flour is made by taking the whole wheat kernel. And what you do is you strip out the outer bran layer and you take out the little kind of fatty middle of it called the germ, and all that's left behind is something called the endosperm, and this is the starch of that wheat kernel.

So then you take this endosperm and it gets milled down, or it gets ground down basically into what we know today as flour. So thinking about a couple of things, when you remove that outer bran layer, the bran layer is what contains most of the fiber; and the germ part, that little fatty part contains some of those fatty acids and also some nutrients in there. So if we've removed the fiber layer and we've removed the germ, we've now reduced the quality, that nutrition quality of that flour.

A hundred percent whole wheat flour will include the bran layer and the germ. So if you see, ever see on a label 100% whole wheat flour, just know that is at least slightly more nutritious than all-purpose flour. Or if you just saw the term whole wheat flour without the 100% tagged to it or it's just, it's at least slightly more nutritious than some of the other refined flours that are out there.

But let's take a moment too, and remember when you grind down any kind of grain or starch, so whether this is wheat or whether it's rice or corn, or even like you see quinoa flour out there or a lentil flour, you are in a sense predigesting that food. Those milling machines, like when you have to grind those things down into flour, that is doing a lot of the physical work to actually break some of these grain products down so your body doesn't have to work as hard to digest it once you actually eat it.

And even once you take that flour and you reconstitute it into things like breads, cereals, crackers, and so on, they still digest very quickly in the digestive tract. These flours, again, they're mostly carbohydrates, again, you've taken out some of that fiber, you've taken out some of the other fatty acids and some of the other nutrients out of there.

So what you're left with is a good amount of carbohydrate. That carbohydrate gets digested down into glucose in the body and then it gets absorbed into the blood stream very quickly. For most people, this is going to result in a significant increase in your blood sugar level. And if you spike that blood sugar time and time again, it creates a blood sugar roller coaster, not only throughout the day, but day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And again over time, then this leads to a lot of the things that our clients come to see us about. We are talking about weight gain, belly fat, insulin resistance, cravings, mood swings, poor sleep and so on.

Offsetting blood sugar spike and alternatives to processed flours

You can offset some of this blood sugar spike by limiting the amounts of foods that you're eating that contain that ground down flour when you limit the portion size in just one sitting. But also when you combine that starch with some kind of protein and healthy fats.

So for example, instead of eating maybe two or three pieces of toast at breakfast, you stick with one piece of toast and with that toast, you want to have some eggs on the side. That'll be your protein. It'll also have some healthy fats along with it. And then maybe you want to top that piece of toast with either some real peanut butter or some good butter. Those will be your healthy fats. So again, when you combine that starch or that carbohydrate with the proteins and the fats, you will buffer that blood sugar response.

But even for some people ditching the grains or ditching those products that are made with flour, sometimes their blood sugars are so sensitive that they need to do that just to be able to balance their blood sugars a little bit better. So maybe instead of that piece of toast, you go for a piece of fruit instead, or maybe you go for half a cup of some sweet potato, just a different kind of starch that might not affect the blood sugars as much.

As a recap, you know, a hundred percent whole wheat flour will contain more nutrients than like your typical all-purpose wheat flour, or if you just saw regular whole wheat flour on a label or from other refined flours, we still though usually try to steer people away as much as we can from those products that use flour. Again, just because those carbohydrates do tend to destabilize people's blood sugars more easily than some of the other more whole food starches or whole food carbohydrates that are out there.

For some people, they're the other whole food starches that might be better for blood sugar overall, and probably more nutrient dense in general are things like, again, sweet potatoes, baby red potatoes, wild rice or or brown rice kind of cooked in that whole form, beans or some of our starchy root veggies like carrots or butternut squash or peas and so on. So I hope that answers that part of the question. Again, I think there's a lot of different ways we could have gone about it, but hopefully that at least did a brief outline of of what is perhaps a more nutritious choice when it comes to wheat flour.

Gluten-free flour options

So let's tackle now the second part of that question or that second question that was related about, you know, what do we suggest for gluten-free flours? Maybe you've been to the grocery store, maybe you've seen a ton of options and, and that's great in modern days. It can be great to have a lot of different options in the grocery store. Or if you go online and look for gluten-free flours, there's, there's a lot of options out there. I mean, this could range everything from brown rice flour, even white rice flour, chickpea flour. There's lots of different flours that come from nuts and seeds.

Almond flour is probably one of the more popular ones. You'll see coconut flour, you'll see tapioca flour, buckwheat flour, cassava flour, oat flour, and I mean the list goes on and on. There's so many different options out there, especially when it comes to the gluten-free flours. Each of these flours are going to have a slightly different nutrition profile to them. They're going to have different textures and use different amounts of liquid when you're cooking or baking with them.

And so I'm no culinary expert there. It can be tricky. It can be a little trial and error. It just kind of depends on what you're trying to get out of this gluten-free alternative: these gluten-free flours. Do you just need a gluten-free option and the source of it doesn't matter? Or are you trying to replicate a recipe that you've used before that uses wheat, but now you're trying to get that recipe to turn out just like if you were using wheat, regular wheat flour or an all-purpose flour for that kind of dish? So which which gluten-free flour you choose is just going to kind of depend on your, on your goal for for that recipe or for that dish.

Now you can find all purpose gluten-free flours out there. Usually these are a blend of several different types of gluten-free flours. Again, because each one has a slightly different texture. They act a little bit differently in a recipe. So when you combine several of them together, you can kind of mix and match enough so that you can approximate pretty closely to wheat flour. It, it just depends on what you're trying to get out of this recipe.

Almond flour: one of our preferred flours

I will say at Nutritional Weight and Wellness, we have a number of recipes on our website that use almond flour. That does tend to be kind of our go-to when we're looking at a gluten-free flour alternative. This is because oftentimes when we're helping people with blood sugar control, we're trying to keep the carbohydrate content of that recipe lower. So using almond flour, which is from ground almonds, and you think about almonds as a nut, they're going to be higher in those good fats. They'll have a little bit of protein to them, but they'll be definitely lower in carbohydrates than if you're using a regular starch based flour.

So for example, many of our recipes, like our protein muffin recipes use almond flour. I believe we have a gluten-free pancake recipe on our website that uses a combination of almond flour and coconut flour. So almond flour can be a great choice if you want a lower carbohydrate flour. Again, it also has some of those healthy fats in them, and as long as you don't need to, as long as you're not allergic to almonds or tree nuts or have like a nut sensitivity in there.

Coconut flour: another lower carb option

Coconut flour also is a lower carbohydrate flour alternative out there. But know that coconut flour has a lot of fiber in it, which for some people, this is myself included, it can cause GI effects, especially if you're trying to use a lot of coconut flour in that recipe. And it also uses a lot of liquid. So however much say even a like a quarter of a cup of coconut flour, you're going to need to use probably at least a cup, if not more of liquid to try to get it to dissolve or get into the right kind of ratio for whatever recipe that you're making this with.

More often than not, I do usually see coconut flour… it's usually being mixed with one or two other gluten-free flours just to achieve that right texture or the right action from that mix. But again, I would say out of the options that are out there, almond flour does tend to be our go-to just from a lower carbohydrate perspective and maybe we're mixing in a little coconut flour in there too just to change things up or just to get a little bit different of a texture from that recipe.

Gluten-free flour blends: still tend to be high carbohydrate

And as I mentioned, most all purpose gluten-free flours out there will be a combination of different gluten-free grains or different nuts and seeds. And I would say that one, if you really are trying to make the your recipe or your dish as close to what the recipe would look like if you're using real whole wheat flour, like this is probably going to be your best option.

Just be aware that these flour mixes are often just as high in carbohydrates, if not higher in carbohydrates for some mixes than regular wheat flour. So they may not have the gluten aspect to them, but they still will typically cause a large blood sugar response. So we do recommend if you are baking with these or using these recipes, just know that you still are going to get a good carbohydrate load. So either you want to adjust your recipe as necessary or it's something that you want to do on occasion or do more sparingly and not use it as your go-to thinking that it is a healthier replacement option.

I hope that was helpful tackling nutritious flours and gluten-free flour options. So I wanted to thank you so much for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist” segment and just invite you that if you have a nutrition question you would like us to answer on this podcast, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook.

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