If you enjoy baking, you’ll know firsthand how confusing the flour aisle can be. Not only are labels lined with words such as whole-grain, stone-ground, and unbleached, but with the rise in popularity of non-conventional flours even more buzzwords are popping up. These days you can find everything from wheat flour to chickpea flour making baking decisions more confusing than ever. So, to help provide some clarity on the subject, and to remind you that flour is not unhealthy, I’ve created a complete guide to buying healthy flour so you’ll know how to decode labels, what keywords to look for, what buzzwords to avoid, and why.
What is Healthy Flour?
To put it simply, flour is defined as; a powder obtained by grinding grain. To get granular (pun intended), flour is made by grinding the edible seeds harvested from cereal plants, and these seeds contain three edible parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran contains antioxidants, B vitamins, and ﬁber and helps to protect the seed until it is ready to grow; the germ contains B vitamins, some protein, and minerals, and stimulates the growth; and the endosperm contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals and stores the energy that the plant uses as food. When a grain is ground into flour, it is broken down into tiny pieces and the bran, germ, and endosperm are separated in the process. From here, these different parts can be separated, or combined, to make different types of flour.
Among grains, wheat flour is the most popular because it is the most unique given its potential to produce gluten; a protein that imparts strength and elasticity to dough and positively influences the texture of baked goods. However, flour can be made out of any type of grain, including rye, kamut, buckwheat, oat, rice, etc…, and depending on the type of grain used, how it was milled and how it was processed will determine if the flour in question is a healthy flour or not.
Whole Grain Flour vs. Refined Flour
When any grain is made into flour it can be done one of two ways; by grinding the whole grain to make whole-grain flour, or by removing the bran and germ to make refined flour. The difference between whole-grain flour and refined flour is simply that the entire grain (bran, germ, and endosperm) where ground to make whole-grain flour, while only the endosperm was used to make refined flour. Although referred to as refined, not all refined flours are a poor choice, it simply means that not all parts of the whole grain we used to make the flour. These terms are not specific to wheat flour, they can be applied to any type of grain flour.
Whole Wheat Flour vs. White Flour
The terms “whole wheat flour” and “white flour” are specific to wheat flour. Whole wheat flour is a whole-grain flour that contains the bran, germ, and endosperm, while white flour is the refined version of wheat flour. Contrary to popular belief, white flour does not always mean that the flour was bleached, rather, white flour is simply a refined flour, that has been stripped of the bran and germ, leaving behind the pale endosperm which is, therefore, lighter in color than whole-grain flour. White flour is more shelf-stable than whole wheat flour, given it does not contain the sensitive bran or germ, but it is, therefore, also less nutrient-dense. On the contrary, whole wheat flour is darker in color because it is made by grinding all three portions of the seed head into flour.
In addition to “refined white flour”, there is also a strain of wheat called “white wheat”. White wheat is a different type of wheat that has no major genes for bran color, unlike traditional red wheat which has one to three bran color genes. Therefore, when ground, all parts intact, into whole-grain flour, white whole-wheat flour resembles refined white flour more than whole-wheat flour. Not only is the bran of white wheat lighter in color but it’s also milder in ﬂavour making it a more enjoyable whole-grain flour choice for those accustomed to the taste of refined flour. Nutritionally speaking, traditional red wheat and white wheat are very similar.
Hard Flour vs. Soft Flour
It is important to understand that there are many different classes of wheat with different characteristics that can be used to make flour and, depending on the overall protein content of the wheat grain, they are categorized into what farmers and millers refer to as “hard wheat” or “soft wheat”. Hard wheat has a high protein content and can develop into a strong elastic dough. Therefore, products made with hard flour, such as bread flour, will hold their shape well once they are baked. On the contrary, soft wheat has a lower gluten content, makes a softer flour, and therefore helps to give products a finer texture making it ideal for baked goods such as cakes, biscuits, and pastries.
Stone-Ground Flour vs. Milled Flour
To turn any grain into flour, it needs to go through a milling process, and there are two ways of doing so: stone milling or steel roller milling. Stone milling is an ancient process of milling flour which is done by gently milling whole grains between two stones. Stone-ground flours are thought to be more nutritious because they (typically) contain all parts of the grain, while industrially ground flours are made using high-speed rollers that heat the grain slightly damaging their nutrients.
Bleached Flour vs. Unbleached Flour
White flour, specifically refined white flour, is sometimes treated by bleaching, either with chlorine or benzoyl peroxide. Not only does bleaching add a chemical layer to the flour, but it damages the starch and protein content of the flour. Bleached flour uses bleaching agents to speed up the flour’s aging process, which otherwise would occur naturally through a curing process. The bleaching process results in a whiter, finer-grain flour with a softer texture, and bleached white flour absorbs more liquid than unbleached white flour, and rises better than whole wheat flour.
Types of Wheat Flour
To make matters even more confusing, there are many different varieties of wheat flour available. The difference in these varieties lies in the different classes of grain flour, or blend of classes, grain parts, and additives (or lack of) used to create them:
ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR: All-purpose flour, or AP flour, is a form of refined wheat flour given it only contains the endosperm, and for this reason, is a very shelf-stable flour. Depending on the brand, all-purpose flour can be bleached or unbleached, stone-ground, or roller-milled. All-purpose flour works well in pretty much every application, and if you only have room for one bag, this should be it.
BREAD FLOUR: Bread flour is made with hard wheat, which is higher in protein and will, therefore, produce more gluten when kneaded. The gluten in bread flour is what helps to form an elastic network to help the bread together and provide a chewier consistency to the bread itself.
PASTRY FLOUR: Pastry flour is made with soft wheat, and has a finer texture than all-purpose flour making it an ideal choice for pastries, pies, tarts, muffins, and cookies. Pastry flour has a much lower protein content than bread flour, around 8.5-9.5%, and most commercially-available pastry flours are bleached, however, some artisanal brands offer unbleached and stone-ground options.
CAKE FLOUR: Similar in protein content to pastry flour, cake flour is ground to an ultra-fine consistency and is traditionally bleached. Although the bleaching process is not ideal from a nutrition perspective, it slightly damages the flour’s starches, allowing them to absorb more liquid and rise higher, which is ideal for fluffy cakes.
SELF-RISING FLOUR: Every baked good needs a leavener and self-rising flour comes with one built right in. Self-rising flour is a combination of all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt, and is most commonly called for in biscuit and pancake recipes. Given it’s made with all-purpose flour, self-rising flour is typically bleached and often industrially milled.
ENRICHED FLOUR: In Canada, all refined wheat flour is enriched. So, whether the flour is all-purpose, cake flour or pastry flour, it will be enriched. This can be labeled in the grocery store as “enriched all-purpose white flour” or as “enriched white flour” as an ingredient in many baked goods. Flours made from other grains may or may not be enriched, so simply read the label to be sure.
Other Grain Flours
In addition to traditional wheat flour, there are many other grain-based flours available on the market that can be considered healthy flour options. Although they are not always 1:1 substitutes for wheat flour in recipes, due to their varying structures, protein content, and gluten content, they can certainly be incorporated into a healthy diet.
SPELT FLOUR: Although spelt is actually a form of wheat, it is often considered an alternative grain flour. It is slightly higher in protein content than traditional wheat flour and can be found in both refined and whole-grain formats.
RYE FLOUR: Rye is a grain, although not part of the wheat family, and contains less gluten than all-purpose or wheat flour, so it produces heavy, dense bread. Rye flour is available in dark and light formats, the dark flour being the whole-grain flour and the light flour being the refined format without the bran or germ. Rye flour is commonly used in Scandinavian bread, such as pumpernickel.
KAMUT FLOUR: Kamut is made from khorasan wheat, an ancient relative of modern common wheat. While kamut wheat does contain gluten, it has a lower gluten content than modern wheat and is, therefore, better tolerated by individuals with gluten intolerances.
BUCKWHEAT FLOUR: Although the name includes the word wheat, buckwheat is actually a seed and is part of the rhubarb family. For this reason, it is naturally gluten-free and has a very nutty flavor, however, it does not have the same protein and starch content as conventional flour and therefore can not be directly swapped in recipes.
OAT FLOUR: Oat flour is simply made from ground oats and, for that reason, is naturally gluten-free flour. Thanks to its naturally sweet taste, it is one of the more easily palatable whole-grain flours for those who are accustomed to conventional flours. However, when used for baking it does not have the same structure so it is best mixed with traditional wheat flour for optimal results.
RICE FLOUR: Rice flour is available in both brown and white formats, which are the whole-grain and refined versions of rice flour. Rice flours have a very granular and gritty texture so they are best combined with other flours.
SEMOLINA FLOUR: Semolina flour is made from the coarsely ground endosperm of durum wheat, and is commonly used for pasta, couscous, gnocchi, and Italian puddings. Semolina flour has the highest gluten content of all of the flours which is what helps to give noodles their elastic texture.
GLUTEN-FREE FLOUR: The term “gluten-free flour” is a general term that can be applied to any flour made from a gluten-free grain (oats, rice, etc…) or a combination of gluten-free grains. Many gluten-free flours are made from a combination of gluten-free grain, seeds, and beans in order to find a starch-to-protein ratio that is more similar to all-purpose flour in order to yield the best results and work as a 1:1 substitute in conventional recipes.
Healthy Flour Alternatives
With so many different dietary requirements, in recent years many flour alternatives have grown in popularity. However, it is important to understand that these flours are not “better” or “healthier” options, they are simply different, and for that reason can not always be used in the same recipes, ratios, or ways as conventional wheat flour. Although referred to as “flour” many of these flour alternatives are not flour in the conventional sense, but rather they are ground formats of their whole food. Given none of these flours are made from traditional grains, they are also all gluten-free options.
ALMOND FLOUR: Made from pulverized blanched almonds, almond flour is also known as “almond meal”. Because almonds have a completely different macronutrient profile than wheat flour, higher in fat, higher in protein, and lower in carbohydrates, almond flour can not be substituted 1:1 in conventional recipes.
COCONUT FLOUR: Coconut flour is made from ground desiccated coconut and is one of the most popular gluten-free flours. Compared to conventional flour, coconut flour is lower in carbohydrates, lower in protein, and contains more medium-chain triglycerides and fiber. When paired with other nut flour or gluten-free grains it can provide a nice fluffy texture but does not work well on its own.
QUINOA FLOUR: Quinoa is technically a seed and is made from grinding whole grains of quinoa. Quinoa is one of few grains or seeds that contains all essential amino acids, although not in optimal ratios, and is, therefore, a favorite for those following vegetarian or vegan diets.
CHICKPEA FLOUR: Also known as garbanzo flour, chickpea flour is made from stone-ground whole garbanzo beans. Garbanzo beans are a source of plant-based protein and high in fiber, and their creamy texture lends a sweet, rich flavor to baked goods. Traditionally used in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, chickpea flour is great for crackers, pizza crusts, and bread.
CASSAVA FLOUR: Made from the whole ground cassava root, a starchy, high-carbohydrate tuber similar to yams or plantains, cassava flour has a neutral taste and light texture making it a good choice for breading and for gluten-free baked goods.
How to Buy Healthy Flour
When it comes to buying healthy flour, as you can see, there are many options to consider. Everything from the type of grain used to how it was milled and how it was processed can influence whether it is a healthy flour or not. However, when buying grain flour, especially wheat flour, here are the important things to look for:
- Look for Minimal Ingredients. As with all food products, be sure to read the ingredients so you know exactly what type of grain was used and if any additives were included.
- Look for Stone-Ground. Opt for naturally milled, stone-ground flour to help ensure a less damaged grain and more nutrient-dense flour.
- Look for Unbleached. Opt for unbleached flour to help ensure chemical agents were not used in the creation of the flour.
- Look for Whole-Grain, if Possible. Opt for whole-grain flours whenever possible for a more nutrient-dense flour, however, keep in mind that whole-grain flours may not provide an ideal texture in all recipes and that refined flours, especially those that are stone-ground and unbleached, will be enriched with nutrients.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, choosing healthy flour is all dependent on what you are going to do with it. Although whole-grain, stone-ground, and unbleached flours are considered the “healthiest” choice, there is a time and a place for using refined flours for optimal texture, and flavor which results in baked goods and treats. Nutrition is all about context and frequency, however, the more you understand how flour is made and the different types, the easier it will be for you to pick a healthy flour that works for you.