Q I grew up using cake, bread and all-purpose flour. I was surprised when I saw all kinds of flours in the store. What they are good for? JG, Greenville
A I didn’t want to sit on the floor in the grocery store to compare products like I recently did for ketchup. Niki Winters, a Brody third year medical student, came to my rescue. Here is what she wants you to know:
There is a role for all types of flours in creating our foods. Some flours are better at delivering flavor, color or texture and others are better at nutrition. Wheat flours are derived from a kernel which consists of the bran, germ and endosperm. The outer covering of the kernel, or bran, contains fiber, antioxidants and B vitamins. The germ is essentially the seed of the kernel and has vitamins, minerals, some protein and healthy fats. Most of the kernel, known as the endosperm, contains mostly starch.
Flour made of 100 percent whole wheat contains all three parts of the kernel and maintains the nutritional value of the bran, germ and endosperm — such as vitamin B6, magnesium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, potassium, iron and folate. It can substitute for all-purpose white flour but is often mixed for a lighter texture and better rising in baked goods. Rye flour is a heavier and darker and also can be used to make bread and is blended with other flours for better rising. It contains lesser amounts of gluten than whole wheat and shares a similar nutritional profile (100 calories, 0-1g fat, 21g carbs, 4g fiber, 4g protein per ¼ cup). Buckwheat flour can be combined with other flours to add a delicious, grassy flavor to bread, pasta and pancakes. It is a gluten free and a good source of fiber (100 cals, 1g fat, 21g carbs, 4g fiber, 4g protein per ¼ cup).
Some commonly used refined flours include all-purpose white, cake and bread flour. To create refined grains, the bran and germ are removed, thus losing the natural nutrients of the original grain. All-purpose white flour is a wonderful option for baking cakes and biscuits but offers less fiber than whole wheat. It is important to recognize that substituting one for the other often produces different results given that qualities such as texture, weight and protein content vary from grain to grain. Some brands are enriched with calcium and vitamins A or D, which is usually stated on the nutrition label. Cake flour is used to make pastries and is generally high in starch. Bread flour is used to make breads and is high in gluten content.
For those unable to tolerate gluten, you might try corn or rice flour. Corn flour is used for breading or is blended with other flours to make pancakes, muffins and cakes. Rice flour is used to make a grittier texture in items such as cornbread, pie crusts and pound cake. They all have similar nutritional values and contain less fiber than wheat flour (100-150 cals, 22-32g carbs, 2g fiber, 3g protein per ¼ cup).
Gluten is the general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye and barley. When water is added to flour, the gluten proteins hold food together and allow for greater elasticity and rise. Unfortunately, gluten gets a bad rap from the media due to its troubling side effects in certain individuals who are sensitive to or intolerant of its proteins. However, most people are able to consume foods containing gluten with no detrimental effects. If gluten does irritate your stomach, you can try replacing with gluten-free flour. And certainly, if you suspect gluten to be a problem for you or someone in your family, it is advisable that you share your concerns with your physician.
A few gluten-free flours good for adding flavor include almond, coconut, and oat. Almond flour adds moisture and a nutty taste to items like biscuits, pancakes, and cookies, but cannot replace wheat flour when baking breads. It is higher in calories, lower in carbohydrates, and higher in fat and protein (180 calories, 16g fat, 6g carbs, 2g fiber, 6g protein per ¼ cup). Coconut flour may be used to make pancakes and cookies and to add the natural sweetness of coconut. It is high in fiber and a good source of protein (120 cals, 3g fat, 16g carbs, 10g fiber, 4g protein per ¼ cup). Oat flour may be used to replace some flours and adds a rich, nutty flavor as well as a denser texture to items such as cookies, brownies, and bread. It must be combined with other flours in order to rise (120 cals, 2g fat, 22g carbs, 2g fiber, 3g protein per ¼ cup).
Additional gluten-free flour options with high protein content include soy and peanut. Soy flour can be used to thicken sauces or as a substitute in breads and cookies as a lower carb option, and usually contains other nutrients such as calcium and iron (120 cals, 6g fat, 8g carbs, 3g fiber, 10g protein per ¼ cup). Peanut flour is also good for thickening or adding flavor to soups and sauces. In baking, it adds its distinct nutty flavor to cookies and pancakes. It is low in carbohydrates and high in protein (110 cals, 4g fat, 8g carbs, 4g fiber, 16g protein).
Many of these options are excellent alternatives to white flour and can be highly effective for baking and cooking, provide you with a variety of important nutrients, and can add a new spin to your foods. So, whether you are looking specifically for low carb, high protein, 100 percent whole grain or extra flavor, you can feel confident that there is a flour out there for you!
Thanks to Jill Jennings, MS, RDN, LDN, ECU Family Medicine for her review of this article.