Now that you’ve gone Paleo, you’re healthier, happier and more energetic than ever before. But sometimes it can feel like something’s missing—things like muffins, cookies, breads, pies and other baked treats. While some of these foods might be your old favorites, they unfortunately aren’t allowed on the Paleo framework. This puts you in a tough spot if you’d like to indulge every now and then without compromising your health.
But is it possible to recreate Paleo-friendly versions of tasty baked goods? Absolutely, and it all starts with finding the right Paleo flour substitute.
You Need Flour for Baking, but Wheat Flour Is Harmful
One of the biggest hurdles to creating Paleo versions of baked goods and desserts is flour. You need flour to give these goods the proper structure and consistency. After all, they wouldn’t be so appealing if they didn’t come out fluffy, tender and moist. And it isn’t just for baking; flour also helps thicken sauces, stews and gravies, and it’s useful for breading meats.
The issue: Wheat flour—what most people use for these tasks—is forbidden on the Paleo diet. It contains gluten, a protein that inflames the body and can lead to a host of health issues, ranging from canker sores and fatigue to irritable bowel syndrome and osteoporosis.1 Wheat flour is also full of carbohydrates, and its high glycemic index means that eating it spikes your blood sugar. Elevated blood sugar can lead to problems like inflammation, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.2
Some people opt for whole-grain flour instead of the typical refined white flour, thinking this makes a healthier choice. Unfortunately, whole-grain wheat flour is still loaded with carbs and has a high glycemic index. It also contains gluten, so using it exposes you to the same range of potential health problems.
Fortunately, there are plenty of Paleo-friendly substitutes available. Here’s a rundown of your different options.
Made from finely ground almonds, almond flour is one of the most popular Paleo flour substitutes. The nutrients in the nuts are passed on to the flour, which means almond flour is high in protein, vitamin E, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus and zinc.3
Almond flour is a good choice if you’re trying to strictly limit your carbohydrate intake, as it contains fewer carbs than the equivalent amount of coconut flour (another popular Paleo flour substitute).
Since almond flour is fattier and less elastic, subbing almond flour for wheat flour isn’t quite as simple as a 1-to-1 swap. While this doesn’t usually matter if you’re making crumbly foods like muffins, if you’re making something with more “chew” to it—like breads or pastries—you’ll often have to add more eggs (or other binders) to achieve the desired consistency. It’s helpful to stick to recipes specifically designed for almond flour at first. This will give you a good idea of how it behaves before attempting any substitutions.
Look for “blanched” almond flour, which comes from almonds that have had their skins removed. Baking with unblanched almonds can result in an unpleasant aftertaste.
Coconut flour is one of the most popular Paleo flour substitutes around, and with good reason—it packs quite a nutritional punch. Coconut flour is most notable for being a good source of lauric acid, a saturated fat that has been shown to support the immune system.4 It also contains key vitamins and minerals like iron, manganese and copper.5
Coconut flour is made by grinding up dehydrated coconut pulp. While coconut flour appears light and fluffy, it’s actually quite dense, thanks to its high protein, fat and fiber content. This allows it to absorb a large amount of liquids.
A little coconut flour goes a long way. Because this flour is so dense, you only need about one-third or one-quarter the amount you would have used with wheat flour. You’ll also need to add more moisture to the batter (in the form of eggs or other binders), as coconut flour will absorb much of the liquid.
It’s also vital to get accurate measurements. Most recipes call for sifted coconut flour. If you use unsifted flour when the recipe calls for sifted (or vice versa), you’ll end up with the wrong amount of coconut flour. This can lead to a much different texture and consistency than you may have expected.
Arrowroot flour (also called arrowroot starch) is made from the dehydrated arrowroot plant Maranta arundinacea. This plant is technically a perennial herb, but it looks like a tuber. The starch is obtained from the rootstock.
The end product is powdery and messy, but it can work well as a thickener for gravies, stews, sauces and other baked goods. It makes a great replacement for cornstarch (which is non-Paleo) at a 1-to-1 ratio.
Arrowroot has a neutral taste that is hard to detect, so it works well in a wide variety of baked goods. You can use it to make foods more fluffy without altering their taste.
Arrowroot flour is softer and more absorbent than tapioca flour (another popular Paleo thickener), although tapioca flour has more binding power. That’s why whenever you use arrowroot, it’s important to make sure that the recipe contains enough binders (eggs, liquids and/or fats) to avoid a crumbly texture.
One of arrowroot flour’s biggest advantages is that it’s hypoallergenic. Because it doesn’t contain gluten, grains or nuts, it’s ideal for anyone sensitive to those foods—Paleo dieters with nut allergies, for instance.
Arrowroot flour won’t harm you like wheat flour because it doesn’t contain gluten, but it isn’t as nutrient dense as nut flours like almond or coconut. This flour is high in carbohydrates, which can spike your blood sugar.6 That’s why it’s best to use it sparingly, or mix it with other Paleo flour substitutes.
Tapioca flour comes from the cassava root (also known as yuca or manioc), a starchy, high-carbohydrate tuber.
Like arrowroot flour, tapioca flour is hypoallergenic and doesn’t contain gluten. However, it also has a high carbohydrate content and fewer nutrients than nut flours.7 This is something to be aware of if you’re following a very low-carb or ketogenic diet.
Tapioca’s starchy texture gives it some binding properties that help give baked goods elasticity and hold. That makes it a good choice for “stickier” foods that need a lot of structure, like brownies, cookies and pie crusts.
Tapioca flour is best used sparingly (as a thickening agent) or mixed with other Paleo flours to alter baked goods’ consistencies. Using too much can result in a gummy, chewy texture.
White Rice Flour
White rice flour is made by milling long- or medium-grain white rice into a fine texture. This wheat flour substitute has a neutral taste and adds a lightness to baked goods. It’s common in Asian baked goods, and is a popular choice for many gluten-free flour blends.
Superfine rice flour is ideal. This flour is milled even more finely, which helps avoid any gritty texture.
Most rice flour is gluten free, which makes it healthier than wheat flour. It also contains a small amount of fiber and protein, but it’s ultimately a starch—mostly carbohydrates without the nutrients found in nut flours8—which means it can still spike your blood sugar.
Like tapioca and arrowroot, rice flour is okay in small quantities. It’s best suited for those who get plenty of physical activity, which makes it easier for the body to process starchy carbohydrates.9
Indulge in the Baked Treats You Love—the Paleo Way
Ultimately, Paleo flour substitutes should be just a small portion of your overall diet. Continuing to focus on quality produce and animal products—as our ancestors did—will help you optimize your health.
Substituting wheat flour with Paleo-friendly alternatives, however, will take you another step in the right direction. You get to indulge in your favorite treats from time to time without completely compromising your diet.
Recreating your old favorite foods “the Paleo way” also acts as a psychological release valve, as it makes the Paleo framework seem less restrictive. You’re much more likely to stick to the program if you don’t feel deprived.
So experiment with different Paleo flour substitutes and see which one works best for you. As you get more comfortable, you can combine different ingredients to get the flavor, texture and consistency you’re looking for. It’s time to get the best of both worlds: the treats you love, without the unhealthy effects of wheat flour!