Get Baking with Gluten-Free Flours!

By Melissa Diane Smith

This article was first published in Better Nutrition magazine, November 2006.

The selection of flour alternatives has never been bigger or better.

A diet free of gluten used to mean giving up baked goods. Luckily, it doesn’t have to anymore. Nowadays gluten-free flour options abound – even for those on low-carb or hypoallergenic diets – and making gluten-free baked goods has never been easier.

Why Avoid Gluten?

Gluten is a collection of proteins found in many grains – wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut and triticale – providing the elasticity that helps hold dough together, trap air bubbles and make bread light and airy. The trouble is, not all people can tolerate gluten. At least 1 out of every 133 Americans react so strongly that they develop celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction in the gut that damages the small intestine lining. An even higher number of people have sensitivity to gluten – high levels of antibodies to gluten – but don’t have the damage in the gut that characterizes celiac disease. With both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal upset to nutrient deficiencies clear up when gluten is eliminated from the diet.

Options Galore

Enter gluten-free flours, a diverse group of products that allow gluten-sensitive people to have their cake and eat it, too. Options include those made from gluten-free grains, beans and nuts. Even if one of these products doesn’t work for a person because of other food sensitivities, the chances are that another one will.

Rice, Bean and Starch-Based Flour Mixes

Multipurpose baking mixes without gluten are now widely available in health food stores. Brown rice flour, one of the most common ingredients, is combined with starches such as potato starch or tapioca starch for lightness, and bean flours such as soy, chickpea or a combination of chickpea (garbanzo) and fava bean flour for better texture and nutritional value. Some mixes may also include corn meal, wild rice flour, almond meal or chestnut flour. Eggs or oil and a few other simple ingredients are all you add to these mixes to create a tasty baked good of your choice in a jiffy.

Another option for gluten-free shoppers is sorghum flour, made from the chewy, sweet-tasting grain by the same name.

Nut flours

Trying to limit carbs because of a digestive ailment, overweight or an insulin-related illness such as type 2 diabetes? Then go a bit nutty with nut flours.

Flour-free nut tortes are a decadent treat often found in upscale restaurants along with nut flour-based cakes. You can make your own – or use nut flour with less sweetening to make grain-free, low-carb muffins, cookies, cakes and breads. Nut flours can also substitute for breadcrumbs in certain recipes.

You can buy ready-to-use almond flour or grind your own a 1/4 cup at a time in a blender using naturally low-carb nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans or walnuts.

Nut flours add texture, richness and flavor to baked goods, and are excellent sources of vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Another benefit: Studies show that eating nuts regularly reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and macular degeneration, a common eye condition.

Coconut flour

Coconut flour, the newest gluten-free, naturally low-carb alternative, has an unique nutritional benefit: It has far more blood-sugar-regulating and “help you feel full” fiber than any other flour – twice as much as wheat bran and four times as much as oat bran or soy flour, according to Cooking with Coconut Flour (Piccadilly Books, Ltd., 2005) by Bruce Fife, N.D.

By itself, coconut flour produces baked goods that are light, fluffy and moist – but it can’t simply be substituted for equal amounts of wheat flour in standard recipes. Because of its sky-high fiber content, it performs differently than all other flours. Baking with it is a big departure from standard baking, so follow recipes designed specifically for coconut flour until you become accustomed to it.

Mesquite Meal:
A Gift from the Desert?

A traditional Native American food from the Southwest desert may be an upcoming gluten-free alternative. Mesquite meal, made from ripened, ground-up mesquite bean pods, is a fragrant flour that is low in carbs and fat and high in fiber. It is also a low-glycemic food, meaning it is digested and released as glucose into the bloodstream slowly over many hours. The meal is surprisingly sweet with a flavor that’s slightly nutty, fruity and caramel-like.

Mesquite meal is also a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and lysine-containing vegetable protein. It can be substituted for up to one-quarter of the flour called for in standard recipes and is available for online mail order through companies such as Native Seeds/SEARCH (

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