When Nature’s Eats first started experimenting with the alternative flour space around 2008, it wasn’t a hit.
J.C. Taylor III, director of marketing and innovation at the company, called its first foray into the category with almond flour more than 10 years ago a "huge disappointment." Even after its lackluster start, big box retailers asked for it again about two years later, but it still struggled. Taylor said it finally started to take off when it hit Walmart shelves around 2012.
"For some reason, I don't know if it was the celiac disease or gluten free, but it just took off," he said. "Then, we're offering this unique flour that the consumer really seems to like and from there, we just expanded the line."
Nature's Eats, a private family-owned brand of Texas Star Nut & Food Company, just launched a variety this month called The Ultimate Nut Flour: Almond+. The company said the proprietary blend of almond flour and other natural ingredients rises better than other almond flours and has a greater nutritional profile than processed flours. One ounce of almond flour contains more than 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber, while one ounce of all-purpose typically contains 2.8 grams of protein and 0.5 grams of fiber.
As consumer interest in paleo, keto and gluten-free diets increases, alternative flours have become more mainstream in recent years. Future Market Insights predicted that the global almond flour market will grow at an annual rate of 8.3% between 2019 and 2029. Other alternative flours are expected to see similar growth, coconut flour in the North America region is expected to grow 6.8% annually to 2027. But now, leaders at alternative flour brands say the category's growth is accelerating even more amid the baking frenzy during the pandemic.
The pandemic's 'silver lining'
Baking has become increasingly popular as consumers are stuck at home during quarantines. According to Nielsen data, in the 52 weeks ending May 23, Americans spent $5.15 billion on baking staples. But as traditional flour has flown off shelves, more consumers are turning to alternatives.
"All-purpose flour was out of stock at a lot of retailers, and so what happened was folks that have never even heard of nut flours started buying our product because there was no more all-purpose flour on the shelves. So they buy our product, they'd use it and they found out that they loved it. So we've gotten this huge influx of new consumers using our product," Taylor said.
But Nature's Eats is far from the only one. Sarena Shasteen, culinary content specialist at Bob's Red Mill, one of the original players in the space, said the Gluten Intolerance Group first approached the company in the early ‘80s, asking if they could separate out gluten-free grains. They were one of the first companies in the health food industry to do so, Shasteen said. Although its alternative flours have grown a lot more popular since then, the pandemic gave it an additional boost.
Online orders more than doubled over the past few months and the company has been busier than the winter holiday season, which is usually when they see the most volume in terms of orders and website traffic, Shasteen said.
"We’ve been very busy throughout the pandemic, with high demand for baking staples across the board," Shasteen said. "As you’ve probably seen on the news, traditional wheat flour has been in particularly high demand, and even out of stock at times across the country. This has led a lot of at-home bakers to reach for a bag of alternative flour and start experimenting."
Claire Schlemme, CEO of Renewal Mill, which offers upcycled Organic Okara Flour and 1-to-1 Gluten Free Baking Flour, said her company didn't have many disruptions in its operations so they were able to supply grocery stores that had decimated bakery aisle shelves. Schlemme said there are people who picked it up that maybe wouldn't have otherwise given it a try.
"It was a really good opportunity for us actually to be able to have this accelerated education around upcycled and sustainable food while meeting the demands that people very much had for more baking products. So in that way, we saw a silver lining for us," she said.
A growing variety to go up against all-purpose
From almond and cashew to okara and coconut, the offerings in the alternative flour space continue to grow.
Renewal Mill's flagship upcycled ingredient is its organic okara flour, which is high fiber, high protein, gluten-free flour that they craft from the soybean pulp that's generated during soy milk production. Schlemme said okara brings a more nutritious gluten-free flour blend than what's currently on the market.
"Alternative flours are opening up this space that had been previously overlooked as a new place to explore different flavors and different kinds of taste profiles," Schlemme said.
How do the alternatives stack up to traditional flour? Taylor, of Nature's Eats, said its flour is low carb and gluten-free, which can make it more appealing than the traditional type to some consumers. He said it can be somewhat challenging to adjust to how it rises and performs, but many find the fact that it is "more natural" appealing.
"It's clean eating, almond flour is one simple ingredient: it's just almonds. You look on the back of all-purpose flour, there is a lot of other added things and processed things to it so I think there's just this desire from the consumer to want to just eat a lot simpler," Taylor said.
Researchers in Mexico found in a 2018 study that when baked goods are made from non-traditional flours using the sourdough fermentation process, the result contains more functional properties that doesn't trade off taste or flavor.
Bob's Red Mill offers flours like coconut, almond, cassava, quinoa, hazelnut and tapioca, as well as traditional all-purpose flour. Shasteen said many alternative flours have a lot of nutrition to offer. For example, its nut flours, such as almond or hazelnut, have far fewer carbohydrates than traditional all-purpose flour, and are a good source of vitamin E, while its Gluten Free Oat Flour is a good source of fiber and iron.
Shasteen said customers often tell them what they want, and the company listens. The gluten-free movement has led to the popularity of different ways of eating, like the paleo and keto diets, which are both gluten- and grain-free, while nut and root flours are a cornerstone of those eating styles, Shasteen said.
"Our customer base has come a long way from the typical 'health food' customer of the 1970s," Shasteen said. "Today, there’s a growing interest in alternative flours among more traditional consumers, who have been introduced to them through a family member with a food allergy or just out of pure curiosity for experimenting with different ingredients."