Almond flour is a little darling of grain free, Paleo/Primal, and low carb baking. It easily rivals conventional flour in its ability to produce tender and fluffy baked goods. Unfortunately, almond flour has numerous detrimental health consequences. It is important to understand these aspects of almond flour, so you can make the decision to avoid almond flour or choose to use almond flour with judicious moderation.
1. Almond flour skews perception about quantity
Get this: A cup of almond flour contains about 90 almonds! I calculated that by dividing 640 calories in a cup of almond flour by 7 calories in an almond. Almond flour disguises the consumption of the nuts.
For example, this ever-popular Almond Flour Pancake recipe from Elana’s Pantry calls for 1 1/2 cups of almond flour and yields about 4 servings (or 2-3 servings, if you have a hearty pancake appetite).
There are about 135 almonds in the entire batch, and 33 almonds per serving (for 4 servings). That is like 3 big handfuls of almonds, eaten at one sitting!
Imagine sitting down and mindfully chewing 33 almonds at one meal. After perhaps a big handful, your body would tell you “Okay. I’m full. That’s enough almonds for right now.” As you may know from experience, your body loses that perception and communication when consuming almond flour.
2. Almond flour is very high in inflammatory PUFAS
About 20% of the fat in almonds is polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Unfortunately, our modern diets tend to overburden our bodies with polyunsaturated fats which leads to numerous health issues.
Here are a few reasons why it is important NOT to go overboard with polyunsaturated fats.
- PUFAS in suppress mitochondrial energy production. In non-chemistry language, PUFAS slow down the metabolism
- PUFAS encourage an inflammatory response in the body
- PUFAS cause digestive issues by impairing the action of certain digestive enzymes
- PUFAS slow down thyroid function
- PUFAS inhibit detoxification enzymes
- PUFAS deplete antioxidants in the body
- PUFAS inhibit production of progesterone and androgens while activating production of estrogen. This encourages estrogen-dominancy in the body and this contributes to many health issues like weight gain, PMS, hormonal acne and more.
Polyunsaturated fats aren’t inherently evil, only harmful when consumed in excess. According to nutrition expert Sébastien Noël at Paleo Lifestyle,
In an effort to optimize health and longevity, one should strive to keep a total PUFA intake under 4% of total calories and an omega-6/omega-3 ratio very close to 1:1. On an average 2,200 calorie diet, 4% PUFA means only about 5 to 8 grams of omega-6 per day to maintain the proper ratio with omega-3 fats. Read more.
The consumption of almond flour is an easy way to overload the body with a detrimental amount of PUFAS.
3. The fats in almond flour aren’t heat stable
Okay, quick chemistry reminder. Saturated fats have single bonds between all the carbon molecules of the fatty acid chain. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond replacing a single bond in the carbon chain. Polyunsaturated have more than one double bond in the carbon chain.
Double bonds are more unstable than single bonds. The more double bonds in a fatty acid, the more unstable it is (polyunsaturated is the least stable, followed by monounsaturated, followed by saturated being the most stable). When the double bonds break, the fatty acid undergoes a process called oxidation.
Processing, heat, light and pressure all cause these double bonds to break. Raw (or soaked and dehydrated) almonds have their polyunsaturated fats intact, and so the only fat issues are those discussed in the previous section. But putting almond flour in a hot environment–like an oven–is going to break some of those double bonds and create oxidized fatty acids.
Why are oxidized fats bad? In a nutshell, oxidized fats = free radicals. Free radicals = cell damage. Of course, we will inevitably have some free radicals in our body. Fortunately, we can consume sources of antioxidants (like fresh fruits and veggies) to combat free radical damage. But if too much oxidized fats, like from large amounts of almond flour, are consumed, our body is depleted of antioxidants and damage to body cells ensues.
Want to know what fats are safe and healthy to heat? Check out my Guide to Choosing and Using Good Fats.
Update: It looks like I may have missed the mark on this point! According to Sarah Ballantyne, scientist, author and a blogging friend,
If you were cooking with almond oil, this would be true. But, research shows that polyunsaturated fats are much more heat stable when part of the whole foods (including the unadulterated seed, but also ground into meals and flours). The best research into the heat stability of polyunsaturated fats in baked goods comes from the study of flaxseed meal and research shows that only an extremely small percentage of the fats are oxidized during cooking. Researchers speculate that the reason the polyunsaturated fats in flaxseed meal are resistant to heat is because they are not isolated but rather are present in a matrix of other compounds that the flaxseeds contain (i.e., when they are bound to proteins, carbohydrates, other fats, fiber etc. that are part of the ground up seed). In addition, the presence of antioxidants in the whole ground seed reduces fat oxidation. These natural antioxidants include lignin fiber (rich in phenols, see this post) and vitamin E which nuts and seeds are particularly rich in.
Furthermore, the internal temperature of baked goods rarely exceeds 160F, which is well below the smoking point of even the most easily oxidized and unstable fats.
Sarah and I share deep mutual respect but we disagree about the virtues of almond flour. She believes the pros outweigh the cons and I believe the cons outweigh the pros. We are happy to disagree about this point and now we leave you to decide how to incorporate almond flour into your lifestyle.
4. Almond flour is high in enzyme inhibitors
Enzyme inhibitors are concentrated in all nuts and seeds and, as a result, almond flour contains a significant amount. Enzyme inhibitors are problematic for digestion, since enzymes are necessary to digest all aspects of our meal from carbohydrates to proteins to fats. When we eat food, it is partly digested by stomach acid in the stomach. Then it travels to the small intestine where the acidity of the chyme (the food mixture) signals the pancreas to release digestive enzymes to further break down the food.
What happens when enzyme inhibitors are present in the chyme from the food we’ve consumed? Our own digestive enzymes can’t complete their job. The body senses a need for more enzymes, so it overcompensates and the pancreas releases even more enzymes. Unfortunately, extra digestive enzymes problematic and deplete the pancreas. The consumption of nuts and seeds causes enzyme imbalances and this often manifests as bloating and stomach pain.
If you enjoy nuts and seeds in any form – in snacks or for baking – soak them first to denature most of the enzyme inhibitors.
5. Coconut flour is healthier than almond flour
When it comes to grain free baking, coconut flour is my top choice. Unlike almond flour, the fat in coconut flour is primarily saturated fat. That means it is safe to heat and it is not toxic to the body. The coconut oil in coconut flour is a veritable superfood, celebrated for weight loss, candida control, metabolism boosting and more. While the fats in almond flour slow metabolism, the fats in coconut flour actually speed up metabolism!
Additionally, a littles goes a long way. Coconut flour seems pricey at first, but it stretches. One batch of my popular Coconut Flour Pancakes with Gelatin use only 1/4 cup of coconut flour for 2 generous portions.
Want to get started with coconut flour? First, here is my Coconut Flour 101 Primer.
Second, remember not to over-do the coconut flour. I limit myself to 2-4 tablespoons of coconut flour per day, mostly because it can be pricy when consumed in abundance. But more importantly, coconut flour is very high in fiber and that is not necessarily a good thing. Please read my post, Is a High Fiber Diet a Health Hazard? for more info.
Third, it is important to start with reliable recipes when using coconut flour. Two of my favorite introductory recipes are:
What about phytic acid in almond flour?
As you may know, phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that prevents your body from absorbing minerals. Almonds, like all nuts and seeds, have high levels of phytic acid if they aren’t soaked and dehydrated. But in almonds, most of the phytic acid is in the brown skin which is removed before the almonds are processed into flour. So phytic acid is a minor issue when it comes to almond flour. You should, however, consider the health detriments of phytic acid if you are using another nut/seed flour that is not made from soaked and dehydrated nuts.
Almond flour and MODERATION
Almond flour should be used in judicious moderation. Perhaps that means one almond flour treat once a month. Maybe set aside the almond flour just for special occasions. I would also suggest giving your body a break from almond flour for a month, and see if you feel… different. You may feel more energy or have less pain and inflammation. You may not. We’re all unique, so you have to experiment and discover what best fuels your body.
Do you bake with almond flour? Have you used coconut flour? Which do you prefer?
Peat, Ray. Suitable Fats, Unsuitable Fats. 2007. http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/unsuitablefats.shtml
Enig, Mary. Know Your Fats. 2000. Bethesda: Bethesda Press.
Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary. Nourishing Traditions. 1999. Washington DC: New Trends Publishing.