Which Types of Flour Are Gluten-Free?

Flour doesn't always mean wheat. Some flours are, in fact, safe!

wheat flour
Wheat flour isn't gluten-free, but other flour types are safe. Maximillian Stock Ltd.

Most people who think of "flour" think of wheat flour. So it's only natural to assume that "flour" is equivalent to "wheat flour," which would mean that all flour contains gluten and therefore isn't safe on the gluten-free diet. 

But that assumption is wrong: not all flour contains wheat. Therefore, assuming that all foods containing any type of flour contain gluten would rule out lots of foods for those who follow the gluten-free diet.

And so fortunately for those who follow the gluten-free diet, there are, in fact, many different types of flour that are gluten-free.

First, Identify the Wheat Flour

The confusion on this topic stems from how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows manufacturers to identify types of flour on ingredients labels. It reserves the word "flour" for flour that's made from wheat.

Wheat flour—the only type that's listed as just "flour" on ingredients' labels—most definitely does contain gluten (gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, barley and rye). So if all you see on a food label is the word "flour," assume that it's wheat flour.

Wheat flour also can be listed on a package as "whole wheat flour" or "wheat flour"—both of those also contain gluten. Therefore, if you see any of these terms on an ingredient list, you can assume that product contains gluten and can't be eaten as part of a gluten-free diet.

To be safe, you should learn how to identify gluten on food labels.

However, if you see the word "flour" on an ingredients list preceded by a word like "rice" or "corn," that food may be gluten-free and safe for you to eat.

Flour Isn't Always Wheat (But It Usually Is)

Even though flour most often is made from wheat, flour doesn't have to be made from wheat—by definition, "flour" is simply a powdery substance made by grinding a starch.

The starch is usually a grain, but not always.

You can make flour from almonds, chestnuts and even potatoes in addition to different types of grains, and many companies sell these specialty flours. People following a low-carb diet often use almond flour in place of grain-based flours, for example.

Flours made from a starch other than wheat, barley or rye are usually gluten-free (again, but not always).

When you're reading ingredient labels, you'll see that flour made from anything other than wheat always will be identified as such—for example, it will be listed as "rice flour," "soy flour," "chestnut flour," "almond flour" or "(fill in the blank) flour" instead of just as "flour."

Choose Your Alternative Flours Carefully

As I said, these alternative flours are usually gluten-free, but they're not always safe on the gluten-free diet due to gluten cross-contamination in processing. Think about it this way: the equipment to harvest and mill coarse grains or seeds into flour is pretty expensive, and so farmers and manufacturers frequently use the same equipment to process both gluten-containing and gluten-free ingredients.

When that occurs, naturally gluten-free ingredients can get some gluten cross-contamination during harvesting or processing.

That may mean they will contain enough gluten to make them unsafe for someone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity to consume.

Also, some products that use alternative flours as ingredients also include gluten as another ingredient—to eat gluten-free, you always need to check ingredients carefully.

Always Buy 'Gluten-Free'-Labeled Flours

Of course, many foods made with these alternative flours are aimed directly at the gluten-free market—they'll display the words "gluten-free" prominently on the package, which means they should be safe on the gluten-free diet. Stick with those to be safe.

The bottom line is, if you see the word "flour" on a food label, you need to read further before you can tell if the food contains gluten or not. But if the ingredients label provides no detail other than something like "flour, sugar, yeast, shortening" then you should assume that particular type of flour contains gluten.

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