Flour is a foundational part of kitchens and cooking, responsible for thickening and binding ingredients in both savory and sweet recipes. The key to finding the healthiest flour is to seek out one that is both nutrient-dense and appropriate for your cooking needs. It’s important to first understand what baking properties flour provides so that when looking for substitutions, you can choose a healthy flour that won’t feel like you’re sacrificing flavor, texture or enjoyment. Avoid the common all-purpose white flour because it is high in calories, most often stripped of nutrients and is linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes (T2D), hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Although traditional flours are made from wheat, today there are dozens of other nutrient-dense options made with everything from roots, beans, nuts, seeds and non-conventional grains. These alternatives to wheat grain-based flours represent low-carb options that help mitigate blood sugar (glucose) spikes and increase good cholesterol.
What is wheat flour?
All-purpose, whole wheat, bread flour and 00 doppio are wheat-based flours. Wheat flours are all made by finely grinding down wheat kernels, which are comprised of three parts:
- The dark and fibrous outer coating is called the bran, which is filled with B vitamins, dietary fiber and a good proportion of protein.
- The starchy and protein-heavy endosperm makes up about 85% of the kernel in volume.
- The nutrient-dense embryo, called the wheat germ, is rich in essential fatty acids, protein, minerals, B and E vitamins.
What makes wheat flours different?
The most notable differences in wheat flours lie in the way they are processed and their nutrient content; specifically, the amounts of starch, protein and gluten:
- Starch, a complex carbohydrate, gives the structure that allows air bubbles to keep their shape throughout the baking process instead of collapsing.
- When water is added, the proteins present in flour, gluten and gliadin, bond together to form a web of gluten threads that form a sort of mesh. The protein levels in flour have the most noticeable impact on texture. Flours can be high or low in protein, which is a direct correlation of how much gluten the dough contains. When the dough is heated, the gluten mesh traps the gas produced from the yeast and solidifies, giving gluten-based products their texture and structure.
- Gluten is an incredibly strong, stretchy substance that captures gas bubbles and is the foremost reason for utilizing wheat flour in any type of cooking. It helps bread rise and gives the food a chewier texture. Gluten is formed when water and yeast mix with a pair of proteins called glutenin and gliadin.
- Individuals diagnosed with celiac’s Disease (CD) or a gluten sensitivity should avoid gluten because consuming any glutenous product can lead to long-term chronic GI tissue inflammation and increased risk for the development of other diseases such as small intestinal adenocarcinoma, esophageal cancer, melanoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Traditional all-purpose flour is stripped of its nutrients and processed in a way that can be confusing, with many labels and differentiators on the packaging. Understanding what the labels mean will help you navigate the aisle towards the fresher, less processed, more nutrient-dense options.
Freshly milled vs. shelf-stable flours
Freshly milled flours contain a lower amount of gluten and higher amount of nutrients (vitamins, minerals and oils). Once flour is exposed to air, it begins to oxidize which causes the nutrients to slowly degrade over time.
Unbleached vs. bleached flour
Freshly milled flour has a yellowish tint from carotenoid nutrients in the endosperm. As flour ages, it reacts with oxygen in the air and becomes lighter in color, more glutenous (leading to more elastic dough), while the starch content remains consistent. Aging flours, also known as bleaching, takes several weeks and can be expensive in commercial production because of this. During industrialization in the early 1900s, the Pillsbury company pioneered the chemical aging process to produce a consistent product more quickly.
Unbleached flour, also known as aged flour, is bleached naturally by oxygen in the surrounding air and remains more golden over time. Naturally aging flour allows the glutenin proteins to form longer gluten chains, giving doughs made with this flour greater elasticity. Many small, independent flour millers like Maine Grains and Bluebird Grain Farms naturally age their flours, as do Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur Flour and Heckers & Ceresota Flour. Unbleached flours are labeled on the front of the package as “unbleached.”
Bleached flour uses chemicals such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C), azodicarbonamide or potassium bromate (banned in many countries, but not the U.S.). While aged flour takes nearly two months to mature, bleached flour takes just two days to produce.
Whitening agents are also used in bread, all-purpose, cake and pastry flours; benzoyl peroxide (which is more commonly known as a treatment for acne) and chlorine gas are used exclusively in cake flour. Chlorination also improves the baking properties of soft wheat by lowering the gluten level and the pH, which produces a sweeter flavor and finer crumb.
Other ingredients common in flour include malted barley flour and enzymes. Malted barley flour contains an enzyme that breaks starches down into sugars, added to accelerate yeast fermentation. Other enzymes may be added to improve yeast fermentation, browning and extending the shelf life.
What is the healthiest flour?
Whole wheat flour
What is the healthiest flour? Let’s start with whole wheat flour. Whole wheat flour is a highly textured, dark brown flour made from the entire wheat grain (endosperm, bran and germ); it contains the original proportions of the kernel itself. The high levels of protein, fats and fiber keeps its Glycemic Index (GI) score quite low, which means it has less of a tendency to spike your blood glucose levels compared with higher-GI flours. Whole wheat flour is a good source of B vitamins, iron and lignans, a category of antioxidants. Both national and global health organizations recommend consuming whole wheat products to help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Whole wheat flour can be substituted into any white flour recipe, although it usually yields a highly elastic, glutinous dough that results in a dense texture after baking. It’s best used for baking yeast breads like brioche, flatbreads, pizza crust or sourdough.
When cooking with whole wheat flour:
- Because of its higher weight and density, use ¾ cup of whole wheat flour for every 1 cup of all-purpose flour.
- Add at least an extra teaspoon of liquid per every cup of flour because of the absorption rate.
Recommended whole wheat flour brands: Buying whole wheat flour requires some vigilance. “Multigrain” means the flour contains various milled grains and “whole grain” means that the bread can be made of any whole-grain kernel —and both types might offer less nutrients than whole wheat flour. Also, keep in mind (i.e., limit) the quantity of whole wheat flour you purchase because it has a shorter shelf life than refined flours (due to oils from the bran and the germ, which can turn rancid more quickly), so it needs to be stored in a cool, dry place.
King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour
Public Goods Whole Wheat Flour
Any grocery store private label whole wheat flour (as long as the ingredients contain only “whole wheat”).
One of the healthiest flour, coconut flour is made from grinding coconut meat into a powder. It’s higher in protein and fiber and contains fewer carbohydrates than whole wheat flour. It’s also rich in minerals like manganese, iron, potassium, phosphorus and selenium. While coconut contains a significant amount of saturated fat, it has been suggested that the medium-chain triglycerides can help reduce inflammation and support a healthy metabolism — although more research on this characteristic is needed.
When using coconut flour, remember that:
- It has a sweet flavor with a hint of coconut that can lend itself well to baked items and for thickening stews made with coconut milk.
- Coconut flour can be expensive and dense, so it’s a good option to substitute all-purpose flour with a combination of coconut and another flour, such as ¼ cup of coconut flour and ¾ cup of another type for every 1 cup of all-purpose.
Similar to whole wheat flour, coconut flour’s gritty texture absorbs a lot of liquid which can result in a dry baked good. Use additional eggs or liquid because coconut flour is more absorbent than conventional flour (1 egg or a few teaspoons of liquid for every ¼ cup of coconut flour).
Almond flour is made by grinding blanched almonds into a fine powder (different from almond meal, which is made from coarsely ground almonds with the skins on). It’s calorically dense — double the calories of traditional flour, high in unsaturated fat and is a great source of fiber while being low in carbohydrates overall. In other words, almond flour doesn’t cause a spike in blood glucose levels, lowers LDL cholesterol and blood pressure and protects brain health. A ½ cup of almond flour provides 65% of the daily value (DV) of magnesium, more than 10% of the DV of calcium and iron and 100% of the DV of vitamin E.
When cooking with almond flour, know that:
- Almond flour has a fairy nutty flavor.
- It can be substituted on a 1:1 ratio with regular flour.
- Like coconut and non-wheat flours, almond flour doesn’t contain gluten so it can result in a flatter yet extremely delicate, cake-like product after baking.
- To avoid your food from crumbling, allow it to cool in the baking dish before transferring it.
- To make your food crunchy instead of soft and cakey, use a combination of almond flour and other flours.
Quinoa flour is made by grinding quinoa into a fine powder. Quinoa is categorized as a whole grain which means it’s more nutrient-dense than a more refined, processed flour — hence it makes our list of healthiest flour. Also calorically dense, it’s lower in protein than whole wheat, coconut and almond flour but is also low in fat. Quinoa flour is a good source of fiber and nutrients, with ½ cup providing over 30% DV of iron and a notable amount of potassium. Quinoa flour has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, benefits gut health and improves overall health status.
When cooking with quinoa flour:
- Any bitter taste this flour might have can be diminished by first toasting it on a low-to-medium heated skillet before using. Stir constantly and avoid burning.
- When substituting quinoa flour for conventional flour, use about half the recommended amount.
- It gives a fluffy texture, so is excellent to use for baked goods and crusts in addition to thickening sauces and soups.
Favorite Brands of quinoa flour:
Buckwheat flour comes from the buckwheat plant, known for its grain-like seeds. Despite the name, this flour is not related to wheat and is gluten-free. It boasts a bold, earthy and even bitter flavor. Buckwheat flour is calorically more dense than whole wheat flour but not as dense as coconut or almond flours. While it doesn’t have much protein compared to the others on this list, it’s high in fiber, manganese, magnesium, copper and phosphorus. Buckwheat flour has a low impact on glycemic response because the carbohydrates are absorbed slowly into the bloodstream. Research indicates that buckwheat flour might reduce blood glucose levels in individuals with diabetes and can improve heart health. It may also have anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties, hence it made our list of healthiest flour.
The earthy taste forms the base for the Japanese soba noodle and it can be an excellent substitution as a breaded coating or in pancakes. When cooking with buckwheat flour:
- The flavor and grainy texture of the flour can be overpowering and because buckwheat doesn’t have the same glutinous properties as conventional wheat flour, your final product can be dense and crumbly. Combine buckwheat with other flours for best results. A good starting point is a buckwheat mixture that contains about 20-50% buckwheat flour.
- Because it doesn’t contain gluten, this flour doesn’t rise and fluff the way conventional wheat flours do.
Chickpea flour is made from dried, ground up chickpeas and doesn’t have a significant flavor profile. Like the other gluten-free flours on this healthiest flour list, it often leads to a more dense and more sturdy baked good when used as a wheat flour substitute. It’s the most calorically dense on this list (400 calories for ½ cup), but also has the highest protein content and provides levels of fiber, iron, potassium, calcium, folate and beneficial antioxidants called polyphenols. It has a much higher carbohydrate content than almond, coconut and quinoa flour, but the majority of the carbohydrates are complex so it shouldn’t raise blood glucose levels significantly. However, because chickpeas are a bean and part of the oligosaccharide family, they can cause digestive issues (as other FODMAPs can) if eaten in significant amounts.
When using chickpea flour, know that:
- It works well as a binding agent and thickener and is a great alternative flour to experiment with in dense cakes, crackers and brownies.
- Similar to flaxseed, chickpea flour can be used as an egg substitute. Mix ¼ cup of water to ¼ cup chickpea flour to replace one egg.
Favorite brands of chickpea flour:
You can make your own by grinding dried chickpeas in a food processor.
Thrive Market Organic Sprouted Garbanzo Bean Flour
Bob’s Red Mill Chickpea Flour
Oat flour is made from finely grinding whole grain rolled oats. Although it’s not as nutrient-dense as other flours on this healthiest flour list, oat flour is high in fiber, complex carbohydrates and offers minerals like iron, calcium and potassium. Consuming oats has been shown to improve biomarkers related to T2D.
Some tips for cooking with oat flour:
- You can substitute oat flour for conventional flour on an equal ratio. Be sure to substitute by weight and not volume because oat flour is lighter per cup.
- Like all gluten-free flours, oat flour will not rise on its own and needs a leavening agent like baking powder or yeast. Add 2.5 teaspoons per cup of oat flour.
- If you’re making a wet batter, allow the oat flour mixture to rest in order to absorb the liquid, leading to a moister end product.
- It’s easy to make your own oat flour; simply grind up whole grain oats that you have on hand.
Favorite brands of oat flour:
Using a food processor, grinding whole grain oats up into flour yourself is often the easiest way to go without buying additional ingredients.
Arrowhead Mills Oat Flour
Anthony’s Organic Whole Grain Oat Flour
Using flour doesn’t have to be a cause of concern when there are so many healthy flour alternatives readily available and worth exploring. Our top six healthiest flour offer nutrient-density and can be mixed together or used individually. Yes, flour is a carbohydrate food, so should be consumed in moderation by those (including individuals with diabetes) prone to blood glucose spikes, but the healthiest flours are high in fiber, which helps keep you fuller for longer while usually keeping blood glucose levels steady. Knowing why and how traditional flour is processed gives you the tools to smartly browse the baking aisle, understanding what the labels mean. Focusing on a few alternatives to try, along with some brand recommendations, can help you ensure that flour can be an addition to a healthy meal, not a detriment to it.