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Wherever you are in the world, flour probably forms the base of many a dietary staple. From bread and biscuits, to pasta and pastry, it’s a prominent ingredient, and one that has only recently started to garner a lot of negative attention. As gluten-free products become increasingly popular, and people point to wheat as a major contributor to health problems, you may find yourself becoming very confused about flour. Whether it’s regular old wheat, or gluten-free varieties we’re talking about, it’s important to understand how this ingredient fits into a healthy diet.

Bread, pasta, cakes, cookies…when you think about it, the amount of flour in the average diet can add up pretty quickly. Is this a problem? Well, it can be. Flour is (generally speaking) made from processed and ground grain. By weight, products made from flour are usually much higher in calories than in-tact whole grains (such as brown rice or wheat berries.) This makes it more difficult to adequately gauge satiety, and therefore easier to over-eat. Long term, this can contribute to weight gain, digestive issues, and fatigue. White flour is particularly problematic as it has been stripped of the outer husk and bran, where almost all the fiber and nutrients of the grain are contained. The lack of fibrous bulk increases the rate at which sugars are absorbed, resulting  in blood-sugar spikes. Calcium, iron, zinc and B-vitamins are all lost in the manufacturing process, making the final product practically void of nutritional value. Chemical bleaches and peroxides are often used to whiten flour, posing further health risks to consumers.

Aside from the energy density and nutritional value, wheat flour (the most common variety) and its products are particularly difficult- sometimes impossible- for people to digest. The inability to absorb gluten can cause major digestive issues, leading to decreased nutrient absorption, and long-term gastrointestinal problems.

For most people, however, flour can be included as part of a healthy diet. Sticking with wholesome options, and focusing on variety, is the key. Of course, you may choose avoid flour products of any kind for personal health reasons- and that’s fine too. But for the busy bakers and sandwich makers, here are some practical pointers for keeping your flour habits healthy!

1. Choose wholegrain or wholemeal products whenever possible. Flours made from whole grains are high in vitamins, minerals and protein, and contain the fiber needed to regulate the release of sugar into the blood stream. Whole-grain flour varieties such as wheat or spelt are widely available, and can be substituted for regular flour in almost all recipes. There are also wholemeal vegan versions of just about every staple you can think of, including pastaspizza bases and tortillas (and gluten free ones too!) For a super nutritional option, try products made from sprouted wholemeal flours. Sprouting grains before turning them into flour increases antioxidant, vitamin and mineral content, and also makes them easier to digest.

2. Always check the label. A product may look like it’s made from wholegrain flour, but remember, looks can be deceiving! More often than you may expect, regular white flour will appear as the first ingredient, with wholemeal flour, bran or wheat-germ added further down the list. When reading labels, look for the word “whole” first. The terms “wheat flour”, “enriched flour” and “all-purpose flour” refer to refined flour, which should be kept to a minimum.

3. Take a break from wheat once in a while. It’s good to use alternative grain flours once in a while, for variety. Whole spelt, rye and barley flours are gluten-containing alternatives to regular wheat flour, and are particularly good for bread-making. You can also try gluten-free flours and their products, such as brown rice pasta and buckwheat pancakes. There’s an extensive range of these products available nowadays, but remember- even if it’s gluten-free, you should be looking for products made using unrefined flours and meals.

4. Make sure to eat whole grains as well. Due to the very nature of manufacturing, the nutritional content of flour-based products will not always match that of the in-tact, whole grain equivalent. Therefore, it’s important to regularly eat a variety of whole grains- such as brown rice, barley, quinoa, spelt berries and millet- instead of relying too heavily on products made from flour.

5. When it comes to baking, go for healthier options. Wholemeal wheat and spelt flours work excellently for things like banana breads, fruit muffins, and these delectable chocolate chip cookies. However, for light-textured baked goods such as sponge cake, you may find that wholegrain flour compromises the structure and quality of the finished product. If that’s the case, go for unbleached white flour, or white whole wheat flour. This way, even if you’re not getting all the goodness of the whole grain, you’re still avoiding the chemical additives found in regular white flour. Another option is to use gluten-free flours such as brown rice or buckwheat. There will be textural differences depending on the type of flour you use, so we suggest you check out this great guide to gluten-free baking for tips and recipes.

6. Save refined flour for special occasions. “But what about when I want to eat out? It’s hard enough to find animal-friendly options as it is!” This is true, and all the more reason to stick with wholegrain products whenever it is possible. You may find yourself longing for a delicious veggie burger on a super-soft white bun, or eyeing a fluffy vegan cupcake the next time you go out for coffee. Reserving refined flour for special occasions, or times when it will contribute to the overall experience of a meal, is better for your body- and your taste buds too!

Check out these amazing gluten-free recipes below:

Image Source: Mudd1/Wikimedia Commons

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