When it comes to low carb baking, nearly all recipes will require either almond flour, coconut flour, or a combination of both. A key to successful baking is to understand how these two different ingredients will affect the baking process and final product. There are additional considerations such as how “clean” you’re trying to keep your diet, and any sensitivities or allergies.
Perhaps the most commonly used nut flour in low carb baking, almond flour is incredibly simple: ground up whole almonds. One twist you may see is blanched almond flour, which simply means the brown almond skin as been removed. You can make almond flour yourself with some whole almonds and a coffee grinder or food processor, making it very accessible. Almonds are also high in fat and relatively low in carbohydrates while high in fiber.
Using almond flour in baking will typically result in a very moist product, because almond flour does not absorb moisture like wheat or coconut flour. This makes almond flour an excellent choice for muffins or brownies. Adding almond flour will provide some structure to any baked good, but not nearly as much as wheat flour. Almond flour also makes an excellent crust for low carb cheesecakes with very little effort.
The downsides of almond flour are somewhat numerous, however. Nut allergies are one of the most common food allergies, taking almonds off the table for many people. Bearing this in mind, baked goods you may have shared freely with others may be dangerous for someone with a nut allergy. Another consideration is the fat (or lipid) profile: almonds are moderately high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid. In one cup of ground almonds, there are 47 grams of fat, with 11 grams of that being omega-6, and only 5 mg being omega-3.
This by itself is not a major concern, and eating almonds can provide you with the omega-6 your body needs. The problem comes from long-term storage of almond flour, which can allow oxygen to bind with the available omega-6, oxidizing it before you consume it, combined with the heat from baking aiding in oxidization and damaging the omega-6 chains directly. As mentioned in the oils section of the Importance of Ingredient Quality post, when your body’s only choice of omega-6 to use is damaged fatty acid chains, it is going to use them anyway, and this leads to dysfunctional cellular structures. This means you don’t have to absolutely avoid baked goods with almond flour, just don’t eat them with every meal, every day of the week, and try to use the freshest almond flour you can.
The final downside of almond flour that I’ll mention is that it is a moist flour that does not absorb external moisture (it’s a ground up fatty nut, after all). This means that in very wet batters, it may not be able to provide enough structure by itself, so additional binders and thickeners may be required. I have used almond flour successfully in many recipes, including cookies, muffins, brownies, and even chaffles, so it certainly has its place in low carb baking, just be aware of the downsides and avoid overconsumption.
Coconut flour is another popular low carb flour substitute in recipes, and has many benefits. It is made from the byproduct of producing coconut milk, which basically removes all the moisture out of the finely ground coconut meat. This makes coconut flour extremely absorbent, which greatly helps stabilize very runny batters and provides decent structure in baked goods. The downside of this absorbency is that it limits how much you can use in a recipe without turning it into a crumbly mess, but this may actually help us in the long run, because the even bigger downside of coconut flour is its carbohydrate content and relatively low fat content.
While coconut flour is considered a low carb flour substitute, it still has a fair amount of carbohydrates in it. To compare to almond flour, 2 tablespoons of almond flour has 1g net carbs, and 2 tablespoons of coconut flour has 2g net carbs. The bigger difference is in the total carbohydrates, which for the same amount of almond flour is only 3g, and coconut flour is 8g. For most of my recipes, I list the serving size in the ingredients as the full amount made, but with my Cinnamon Coffee Cake Chaffle recipe, I made the serving size 1 chaffle, because of the higher total carbohydrate content added by the 2 tablespoons of coconut flour that is used in the recipe. Every body will react differently to carbohydrates and fiber, so I would recommend staying on the safe side and not eating a lot of coconut flour at a once.
Another potential negative to coconut flour is that it adds a distinctive flavor to whatever it is in, much more so than almond flour does. I personally do not like the taste of coconut, but I can deal with it when other flavors, such as vanilla and cinnamon, are able to compliment or even overpower it. In most recipes, this flavor should be limited due to the fact that you shouldn’t use too much coconut flour because of its high total carb count and the previously mentioned high moisture absorbency. This, however, does make coconut flour great for recipes that you want to taste like coconut. The fact that coconut flour is created as an industrial byproduct also means that you can not easily make it at home if you’ve got some raw coconut laying around.
The final consideration I will discuss is who should avoid coconut flour. Some people are allergic to coconut specifically, but not tree nuts, so it should be obvious that coconut flour is not for them. The second group of people who should avoid it, are those with severe gut health issues, like IBS. Many with diagnosed IBS are probably already familiar with the term FODMAP, which is a list of types of carbohydrates that can increase the severity of IBS symptoms. Coconut meat, while considered low FODMAP in moderate quantities, is considered high FODMAP in quantities greater than 1/2 a cup. “So if you’re only using 2 tablespoons it should be fine, right?” Not quite that easy, because in low carb baking we commonly use other FODMAP ingredients, like sugar alcohols and ingredients containing lactose, as well as other fermentables. So if you have severe gut issues, coconut flour and sugar alcohols should mostly be avoided.
The main difference between almond flour and coconut flour from a baking standpoint is how they affect the moisture content of the baked good: almond flour = moist, coconut flour = drier with more structure. Additionally, almond flour has more fat, while coconut flour has more carbohydrates. People with allergies should avoid what they are allergic to, and people with gut health issues like IBS should avoid coconut flour and sugar alcohols.
The most important takeaway is that, just like the full carb wheat and sugar baked goods we all used to love, low carb baked goods that use these flours should be eaten in moderation, and not with every meal of every day. If you’d like a sweet treat more often, check out some of my other sweet chaffle recipes that don’t use any flours and are sweetened with liquid monk fruit extract, or follow the Low FODMAP tag for all chaffle recipes on this site.