Can whole wheat flour be gluten-free?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye that gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape. For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine. This can lead to symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, fatigue, headache, anxiety, and more. The only treatment is a strict lifelong gluten-free diet, avoiding all foods and products containing gluten.

With the rising popularity of gluten-free diets in recent years, many people wonder if whole wheat flour, which contains gluten, can somehow be made gluten-free. This article will examine if it is possible for whole wheat flour to be gluten-free, look at some potential alternatives, and summarize the key points.

Is Whole Wheat Flour Naturally Gluten-Free?

Whole wheat flour is made by grinding the entire wheat kernel, including the gluten-containing endosperm, bran, and germ. Therefore, whole wheat flour naturally contains gluten and is not gluten-free.

There are many healthy nutrients found in the bran and germ portions of the wheat kernel. This has led to the perception that whole wheat flour is healthier than refined white flour. However, for people who require a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, all forms of wheat flour should be strictly avoided, including whole grain and whole wheat flour.

Some people wonder if certain varieties of wheat, like einkorn or spelt, may be gluten-free. But all varieties of wheat naturally contain gluten proteins. There are no wheat varieties that are inherently gluten-free.

So while whole wheat flour provides benefits for the general population, it is not an option for a gluten-free diet.

What Makes a Food Product Gluten-Free?

For a food product to be labeled as gluten-free in the United States, it must meet the following requirements according to the FDA:

  • It must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
  • No ingredients derived from gluten-containing grains like wheat, rye, barley or their crossbred hybrids.

20 ppm is the lowest amount of gluten that can reliably be detected in testing. At amounts lower than 20 ppm, gluten presence can’t be reliably measured. That’s why any detectable gluten below this threshold is considered gluten-free.

This makes trace amounts of cross-contamination possible in gluten-free products. That’s why celiacs must carefully read labels and look for certification programs that enforce additional testing and safety protocols.

These criteria make it essentially impossible for whole wheat flour itself, containing high natural gluten content, to be considered gluten-free.

Attempts at Removing Gluten from Wheat

Some companies have experimented with processing methods aimed at removing gluten from wheat to make a “gluten-removed” flour.

This is typically done through enzymatic processes that break down the gluten proteins into smaller peptide fragments. However, research shows that these fragmented gluten peptides can still cause issues for those sensitive to gluten.

One study found that study subjects with celiac disease experienced an immune reaction and intestinal damage markers after consuming bread made from gluten-removed wheat flour for just 3 days.1

Due to the safety concerns, gluten-removed wheat is not permitted in gluten-free labeling in many countries. In the United States, it can be labeled as gluten-free only if the finished product tests below 20 ppm of gluten. However, those with celiac disease or wheat allergy are generally advised to avoid gluten-removed wheat flour.

So while technology exists to remove some gluten from wheat, the resulting products still contain gluten peptides and are not considered safe or appropriate for a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten-Free Substitutes for Wheat Flour

Instead of trying to remove gluten from wheat, another approach is using alternative gluten-free flours and starches to substitute for wheat flour. Here are some of the most common gluten-free flour options:

Almond Flour

Made from ground almonds, this flour works well in baked goods thanks to its soft, dense texture. With a mild nutty flavor, almond flour can replace up to 1/4 of wheat flour in recipes. It also provides a good boost of protein and healthy fats. However, it does not contain gluten, so cannot replicate the elasticity of wheat dough.

Brown Rice Flour

Milled from unpolished brown rice, this flour adds fiber, nutrients, and gritty texture to recipes. It works best combined with other gluten-free flours and starches. On its own, rice flour makes crumbly baked goods.

Buckwheat Flour

Despite its name, buckwheat is not related to wheat and is gluten-free. With an earthy, nutty taste, buckwheat flour works well in pancakes, cookies, muffins and bread. About 1/4 to 1/3 of wheat flour can be replaced with buckwheat flour in recipes.

Coconut Flour

Made by drying and grinding coconut meat, coconut flour soaks up a lot of moisture in baking. Its high fiber content necessitates using far less volume compared to wheat flour in recipes – about 1/4 to 1/3 cup for every cup of wheat flour.

Chickpea Flour

Also called garbanzo bean flour, this flour made from dry chickpeas can add protein and nutty flavor to baked goods. Functions similarly to wheat flour when used in combination with other flours. Also great for making flatbreads.

Oat Flour

By grinding whole oats, oat flour adds subtle sweetness, soft texture, and nutrients to recipes. It cannot form gluten, so works best combined with other gluten-free flours. Check labels to confirm gluten-free oat sources.

Quinoa Flour

Milled from quinoa seeds, this flour contains protein and nutrients. Up to 20% of the wheat flour can be replaced with quinoa flour, enhancing nutrition in baked goods with a mild, grainy taste.

Sorghum Flour

Sorghum is a gluten-free ancient grain that makes a dense flour with a mildly sweet flavor. Sorghum flour can replace up to half of the wheat flour in recipes for baked goods. The resulting texture is a bit grainy.

Tapioca Flour

Extracted from cassava root, tapioca flour provides chewiness to gluten-free baking with its starchy texture. It is commonly used in combination with other flours and improves the rise of baked goods.

Teff Flour

An African cereal grass, teff flour adds protein and earthy, malty flavor to baked goods. Its very small flour particles provide a smooth consistency. About 1/4 of wheat flour can be replaced with teff flour.

In most cases, combining 2-3 of these flours creates the best baking results as they balance each other out. Depending on the recipe, almond flour, chickpea flour, and oat flour make a robust blend. Brown rice flour, tapioca flour, and sorghum flour also work well together. Playing around with different combinations is key to finding your perfect gluten-free flour blend.

Should Celiacs Consume Oats?

Oats are inherently gluten-free grains. However, they are often processed in facilities that also handle wheat, creating a high risk of cross-contamination with gluten.

Some individuals with celiac disease may be able to tolerate pure, uncontaminated oats in moderation. But about 20% develop symptoms and antibodies from eating oats, likely related to a protein in oats that is similar in structure to gluten.2

Given this variability in individual responses, most celiac disease researchers and clinics advise avoiding oats altogether or introducing them with caution under medical supervision.

When buying oats labeled as gluten-free, it is important to look for purity protocols like those followed by GFCO, Gluten Intolerance Group, and GF Harvest brands. Avoid oat products that do not provide verified testing.

Whole Wheat Flour Alternatives Recap

In summary:

  • Whole wheat flour contains gluten naturally and cannot be made gluten-free.
  • Attempts to remove gluten from wheat to make “gluten-removed” flour still produce adverse reactions for celiacs.
  • Gluten-free flours like almond, coconut, chickpea, and quinoa flours serve as healthier whole wheat alternatives.
  • Combining 2-3 gluten-free flours creates optimal baking results.
  • Oats are gluten-free but high risk for cross-contamination; purity protocols are essential.

For people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities requiring a strict diet, these gluten-free flour options provide more nutritious, plant-based alternatives to whole wheat flour. Testing out different combinations and recipe adjustments helps adapt favorite baked goods to be gluten-free.

Health Benefits of Gluten-Free Whole Grains

A common concern around gluten-free diets is missing out on the nutrients, fiber, and health benefits associated with whole grains that contain gluten. However, there are many healthy gluten-free whole grain alternatives that provide similar benefits:

Brown Rice

Like whole wheat, brown rice is a whole grain that provides filling fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants. These nutrients are removed during the refining process to make white rice. Studies show brown rice consumption lowers inflammatory markers, reduces cardiovascular disease risk, manages blood glucose levels, and aids weight control.3


Despite the name, buckwheat is gluten-free and loaded with antioxidants like rutin. Studies show regularly eating buckwheat can lower blood pressure, improve circulation and cholesterol levels, protect against diabetes, and reduce system inflammation.4


In addition to being gluten-free, quinoa is one of the most protein-rich plant foods. It provides all nine essential amino acids needed for good health. Quinoa intake is linked to lower LDL cholesterol, improved blood sugar control, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.5


This tiny gluten-free grain originated in Ethiopia. Full of calcium, protein, fiber, and prebiotics, teff can help build bone strength, manage blood sugar, promote healthy bacteria in the gut microbiome, and reduce PMS symptoms in women.6


Sorghum is another gluten-free ancient grain that rivals whole wheat in protein and mineral content. Several studies show sorghum can reduce cholesterol, improve antioxidant status, stabilize blood sugar, and lower calorie intake by increasing feelings of fullness.7

So while whole wheat itself contains gluten, many other nutritious gluten-free whole grains provide similar benefits. Focusing your diet around these healthy alternatives helps ensure you get all the nutrients you need on a gluten-free diet.

Gluten-Free Diet Considerations

When starting a gluten-free diet, there are some important factors to consider:


Eliminating obvious sources of gluten from your diet is the first step. But hidden trace amounts through cross-contamination are a main source of continued gluten exposure for those with celiac disease. Using dedicated gluten-free cooking equipment and avoiding shared surfaces when preparing food is key.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Gluten-free substitutes like corn or potato flour are often low in nutrients. utan, fiber, iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and B12 are commonly lacking in gluten-free diets.8 Consuming a varied diet with nutritious gluten-free whole grains can help fill these nutritional gaps.

Higher Cost

On average, buying gluten-free specialty products costs 242% more than regular products.9 Focusing more on naturally gluten-free whole foods can help minimize this cost burden. Buying flour in bulk and meal prepping are also great cost-saving strategies.

Diet Diversity

Many processed gluten-free items, like breads, cereals, and snacks, are made with simple refined flours and starches like potato flour, tapioca starch, corn starch, etc. Without variety, this can get boring fast. Experimenting with different healthy gluten-free grains and flours makes following the diet more sustainable long-term.

While gluten-free diets eliminate wheat flour, you can still enjoy baked goods, pastas, cereals, and more made with nutritious alternatives. Combining gluten-free whole grains, flours, starches, and binding agents mimics the texture and satisfaction of wheat flour. With creativity and planning, you can savor healthy gluten-free versions of your favorite foods.

Are There Any Benefits to Wheat Sensitivity?

For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten resolves symptoms and prevents long-term health consequences. So cutting out gluten-containing wheat flour and grains provides clear benefits.

However, for the general population without these conditions, there is minimal evidence that gluten itself causes negative health effects. Some people report feeling better avoiding wheat and gluten. But studies show non-celiac gluten sensitivity is rare, affecting only up to 1% of the population.10

In people without gluten sensitivity, avoiding wheat may relieve symptoms simply because it eliminates a major source of FODMAPs, which are fermentable carbs that can cause digestive issues.

Some perceive benefits of going gluten-free due to reducing overall carb or calorie intake on the diet. Refined wheat flour has a high glycemic index that may negatively impact blood sugar and hunger.

For non-gluten sensitive individuals, cutting out whole wheat eliminates fiber, vitamins, and minerals beneficial for metabolism, digestion, and preventing disease. Whole grains consumption lowers risk of stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.11

The key is consuming whole wheat and gluten-containing grains in moderation as part of a balanced diet. For those with medical gluten sensitivity, excluding wheat and gluten provides clear advantages. But for the average person, whole wheat as part of a varied diet provides important nutritional benefits without any proven harm from gluten itself.


In summary:

  • Due to containing gluten naturally, whole wheat flour cannot be made gluten-free.
  • Attempts to remove gluten from wheat create products still unsafe for celiacs.
  • Alternative gluten-free flours like almond and coconut flour provide substitutes.
  • Gluten-free whole grains like quinoa offer similar benefits to whole wheat.
  • Cross-contamination, costs, and nutrition are diet considerations.
  • For non-celiacs, whole wheat as part of a balanced diet has benefits.

For those medically required to avoid gluten, a strict gluten-free diet using substitutes provides safety and health. But for the general population, whole wheat flour in moderation supplies important nutrients and fiber with no proven harm from gluten itself. While wheat flour cannot be gluten-free, with proper awareness and precautions, both gluten-sensitive and non-sensitive individuals can enjoy the benefits of a diverse, healthy diet.

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