So–you love pizza, or bagels. Or cupcakes, muffins, cookies, pies…and other sweet, rich dishes for which grain flour is the inevitable chief ingredient. If you’re anything like I was–you might be under the impression that in order to lose weight, get clear skin, avoid allergic reactions, and (most importantly) enjoy life to the fullest…you must give up all tantalizing, wonderfully-textured sweet and/or savory culinary indulgences. While it may seem hard to believe, we [homo sapiens sapiens born in the 20th or 21st century] can indulge in hearty, doughy deliciousness while following the paleo diet. To the contrary, it’s entirely doable. In fact, most grain flours (even pastry flour) can be replaced with healthy, gluten free, nutrient-dense alternatives! Here’s the 411:
Often used as a base in French pastries, almond flour has many benefits as an alternative to wheat flour. When using almond flour for baking, it is important to consider which type to use–depending on the desired volume, quantity and flavor profile. For example, blanched almond flour is considered the best in terms of flavor and texture. As it is not always affordable or available in stores, the most economical option would be to make your own. Other types of almond flour include almond meal (coarse grind almond flour) and raw almond meal (processed in the same way as “regular” almond flour, but with a coarser grind). Almond meal is the optimal choice for artisan-style breads and are best at mimicking “whole-grain” baked goods. In contrast, raw almond flour must be finely ground. To remain raw during the grinding process, raw almonds must be soaked and dehydrated prior to the grinding process.
Compared with chickpea flour, coconut flour is low in carbohydrates but higher in fat. Baking with coconut flour results in a light, airy, fluffy texture–making it the ideal choice for cupcakes and muffins. Because it is slightly sweet, coconut flour reduces the need for added sweetener in baked goods and other recipes. Coconut flour is high in fiber and also gluten free.
For each egg (in baking), substitute 1 “flax egg” (1 tablespoon flaxseed meal mixed with 2 tablespoons water). Be sure to let the mixture stand until it reaches a gooey, egg-like consistency. Flaxseed meal is perfect for bran muffins, oatmeal cookies, and other whole-grain recipes. It can be purchased in bulk, at natural food stores and online–or you can make your own (using a coffee grinder and whole flaxseeds). Depending on the recipe in question, flaxseed meal can be disadvantageous because it has a distinct flavor that can overpower certain items. In such cases, the number of flax eggs can be reduced and/or other egg alternatives can be added to the recipe (i.e. in a recipe that calls for 2 eggs, substitute 1 flax egg and ¼ cup blended silken tofu).
Like flaxseed, chia can be used to create a gooey, egg-y texture in cookies, muffins, cakes, etc. Chia seeds are high in protein, iron, calcium, and soluble fiber. They are also an excellent source of ALA Omega-3 fatty acids. Unlike flax seeds, chia seeds can be used whole (you don’t have to grind them), making it easy to keep a supply on hand and not have to worry about them going bad (flax meal and other ground seeds are subject to rancidity). One potential downside to these [otherwise very useful] seeds is their cost–a 16oz container can cost as much as $25 (USD). However, NOW® products tend to be less expensive than other brands. I’ve found 2 lb and 3 lb bags at a reduced price (the more you buy, the more you save) on Amazon.com. To make a chia egg, mix 1 tablespoon chia seeds with 2 tablespoons water.
Hemp flour is rich in essential amino acids and high in protein, gluten-free and easy to digest. Further, the nutrients contained in hemp seeds are released more fully when ground to a flour. Hemp flour has a pleasant, mild flavor and is well-suited for cooking and baking.
*Re: Concerns about possible THC in hempseed: There are many nutritional products on the market that advertise to contain hemp, hemp seed oil, or other parts of the marijuana plant. Since it is plant-based, hemp protein is marketed as a good source of protein for vegans. It is also appearing in more mainstream food products such as some brands of yogurt.
Under ideal circumstances, the parts of the plant used for hemp (the stem and seeds) do not contain THC. Most growers of hemp purposely grow plants low in THC concentration so that they can harvest the stems, oil, and seeds without worrying about legal issues around THC content (US Anti-Doping Agency, 2014).
Despite its high protein content, chickpea (aka garbanzo bean) flour is often avoided on the paleo diet. Like many other legumes, chickpeas must be cooked in order to be edible. In other words, our hunter gatherer ancestors did not eat chickpeas. The chickpea is, however, considered a vegan staple–and chickpea flour is nutrient-dense and low in carbohydrates compared to wheat, rice, corn, and other grain flours. One of the most widely-utilized crops in middle eastern cooking, chickpeas are the prototype for hummus and falafel.
High in protein, iron, calcium and B vitamins, flour is a nutritious gluten-free alternative to grain flour. Commonly used in gluten-free baking, it also works well as a thickener in sauces and gravies. Soy flour is available in different varieties (categorized according to processing and fat content). The most commonly-used, readily available varieties are full-fat (roasted) and defatted. Not to be confused with the refatted variety used to make donuts and packaged sweets, full-fat soy flour is made from unextracted, dehulled soybeans that naturally contain 18-20% oil. Defatted soybeans undergo more processing in order to remove these oils. The choice of which type to buy depends on the recipe in question and/or personal preference. Full-fat soy flour contains 126 calories and 7g fat per ounce by weight. The defatted variety, on the other hand, measures in at 94 calories and less than 1g fat. Defatted soy flour is higher in protein (nearly 14g per ounce, while the full-fat version contains just under 10g). Also higher in calcium, fiber, and iron–defatted soy flour is in some ways nutritionally superior. However, full-fat soy flour contains six times the amount of thiamine (vitamin B1), and boasts a substantially higher riboflavin (vitamin B2) content as well. The niacin (vitamin B3) content is somewhat higher in full-fat soy flour. Full-fat soy flour is more paleo-friendly because of its low carbohydrate and higher fat content.
Peanut flour works well as a grain-free alternative to pastry flour, but is somewhat higher in fat compared to soy and chickpea flours. Peanut flour is used to thicken soups, stews, and other dishes in place of high-calorie thickeners such as roux (equal parts fat and wheat flour). In addition, peanut flour functions effectively as an alternative to the peanut butter in sweet and savory dishes alike–and also makes a delicious, true-to-taste, lower calorie version of the classic PB&J. Similar to soy flour, peanut flour is available in different varieties. Defatted peanut flour contains 12% oil, making it lowest in fat. Another option is partially defatted peanut flour, which contains 28% fat. Both types are available in dark, light, and medium roast.