A July 2015 poll found that at least 1 in 5 Americans include gluten free foods in their diet. This segment of the population is far larger than the roughly 1% of Americans with Celiac disease or another medical reason to avoid gluten. Clearly, people currently tend to view a gluten free approach to eating quite favorably (1).
It’s not just gluten free eating that’s caught on big time. NPR crowned 2013 as “the year of the Paleo”, due to an explosion in popularity of grain-free eating. Since then, the trend continues. While not all Paleos consume chickpeas either whole or as flour, some do include them as a form of resistant starch to encourage the growth of beneficial gut microbes.
The growth in gluten free and grain-free style eating has created a huge demand for processed and prepared foods with ingredients that fit the bill. You don’t even have to go to the healthfood store to find them. Rice breads, corn pastas, and hundreds of other new and novel products are now available in the average grocery store.
Chickpea (Gram) Flour Nutritional Comparison
If you’re considering chickpea flour as a possibility in your fully or partially wheat free kitchen, here’s how it stacks up nutritionally to other gluten and grain free flours on the market. The first thing to know is that depending on where you live, you may encounter a variety of different names.
For example, the term gram flour refers to a ground pulse from a specific variety of chickpeas known as the Bengal gram. Gram flour is a staple in the cuisine a number of Asian countries including, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Flour from other varieties of chickpeas are popular on other continents.
Several other names for chickpea, or gram flour, are commonly used in traditional cuisine. These include:
- Besan powder
- Besan flour
- Garbanzo bean flour
- Garbanzo flour
Traditionally Made Gram Flour
Ancestral peoples traditionally made gram flour by grinding either raw or (usually) roasted chickpeas. It is highly unique as a flour as it is higher in protein, fiber and other nutrients compared with grain based flours. It compares most favorably to gluten free grains many of which tend to be overly heavy in simple carbs.
According to Lindsey Love in her book Chickpea Flour Does it All, finely ground garbanzo beans blow away both rice flour and whole wheat flour when comparing nutritional stats. It truly has the nutrition, versatility, taste and texture to make the grade in any choosy cook’s kitchen.
Garbanzo Beans and Chickpea Flour: Traditional Foods from 5 Continents
For once, the growing modern popularity of chickpea gram flour makes sense and is well deserved!
Even more exciting, besan flour is a traditional food, consumed by many cultures from multiple continents around the world. While some cultures use the flour ground from raw chickpeas, gram flour is usually made from the roasted legume. More on the reasons for this below.
Cultures from 5 continents make over three dozen dishes using chickpeas or garbanzo bean flour as a staple ingredient (2). Here’s a small sampling:
- North Africa enjoys chickpea flour made into a pancake like food called chilla, and a mixture of flour and egg called karan.
- The Middle East gives us the well known favorite known as hummus.
- From Eastern Europe comes the Armenian vegetarian meatball dish called topik. Cooks mix garbanzo flour with potatoes and combine with a filling of onions, nuts and currants.
- Western Europe enjoys the Spanish dish Cocido lebaniego. It is a stew that blends chickpeas, potatoes, and collard greens (cabbage is sometimes a substitute) in a rich broth.
- North Indians enjoy the dish Soan papdi where the baked besan flour is served cube-shaped or as flakes, with a crisp and flaky texture.
- Mexico’s Caldo tlalpeño, is a traditional dish containing chicken, chickpeas, carrots and green beans submerged in a chicken broth with garlic and onion and seasoned with epazote and chipotle chili.
- Puchero is a type of chickpea stew that enjoys wide appeal in Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay, the Philippines, Mexico and Spain!
While chickpeas and the besan flour made from grinding them is a nutritious staple from numerous cultures, does this legume have pitfalls to watch out for when cooking with them at home?
What are phytates in food and why does it matter? In essence, the term “phytate” refers to a group of eight different anti-nutrients found in all plants. Most nuts, seeds, legumes and grains contain substantial amounts. Phytic acid is the most common, chemically known as inositol hexaphosphate and IP-6.
Phytates are important to the health of plants because they store the phosphorus needed to support germination and growth. An enzyme called phytase neutralizes the phytate to release the phosphorus. Plants and most animals have the ability to manufacture their own phytase. Unfortunately, humans do not! While beneficial bacteria in the human intestine produce small amounts, it is not enough phytase to digest phytates found in foods. Undigested phytate binds with iron, calcium and zinc, which means the minerals can’t be properly absorbed. This has the potential to trigger mineral deficiencies over time (3).
Phytates in Chickpeas
It is important to understand that phytic acid content varies greatly from food to food. According to this lengthy chart from the Weston A. Price Foundation, chickpeas definitely contain phytates, but not at the extremely high levels of some foods such as soy, sesame seeds, and almonds (including almond flour).
Chickpeas have a comparable level of anti-nutrients to lentils. As such, if you are eating chickpeas or chickpea flour regularly, it is best to ensure they are sprouted or soaked to reduce the anti-nutrient level so you can be sure you are actually absorbing all their wonderful nutrients!
*Refer to the easy recipe for preparing traditional chickpeas and chickpea flour before cooking and baking below.
Lectins are anti-nutrient depleting proteins. They bind to insulin receptors, attack and bind to the stomach lining and they seemingly cause leptin resistance. Leptin is the supervising hormone – the gatekeeper of fat metabolism, monitoring how much energy an organism takes in. It surveys and maintains the energy balance in the body, and it regulates hunger. And leptin resistance is a predicting factor to complications of metabolic syndrome independently of obesity.
The lectins in chickpeas can indeed cause serious gastrointestinal and other issues if consumed in even moderate quantities (4). But there is good news! Cooking or baking breaks down lectins by up to 95%!
As long as you’re not going to be consuming raw chickpea flour, then you are good to go in the lectin department. Only raw vegans would likely be at risk.
Cooking and Baking with Garbanzo Bean Flour
Chickpeas and (gram) chickpea flour have a long history in traditional food and cuisine from multiple continents around the world. Thus, if chickpea flour catches your fancy, then by all means use it in your cooking and baking! Incidentally, another excellent choice for a grain free, low anti-nutrient flour is the tuber cassava (not to be confused with tapioca, its more processed form). Potato starch flour is another good choice.
Consuming gram flour as part of a varied and real foods diet is of little concern and likely will confer nutritional benefits.
That said, here’s the bugaboo to watch out for:
The problem with most modern/processed foods is how food manufacturers take traditional ingredients (like chickpea flour) and process them without traditional techniques that eliminate phytates and preserve/enhance nutrients. On top of that, they might even be packaged in toxic containers.
Watch out! Many commercial/processed besan flours and foods made with it may fit this pattern. Do your homework and find good brands. If you choose to buy chickpea flour, stick with roasted and similar varieties that have reduced lectin and phytate content.
Making your own garbanzo flour is always the best and most nutritious way to go. Below is a simple recipe on how to make chickpea flour with soaked chickpeas if this is something you would like to tackle. Note that it is best to never use the chickpea cooking water for making the egg replacement aquafaba. This liquid is full of anti-nutrients and there are health risks from consuming it as well.
How to Make Chickpea Flour
A simple recipe for making the freshest, most nutritious chickpea flour for all your traditional baking and cooking needs.
Rinse chickpeas and place in a large glass bowl (I use these).
Add enough filtered water to cover.
Stir in lemon juice.
Cover with a dishtowel and leave on the counter overnight or up to 24 hours max.
Drain and rinse soaked chickpeas. Alternatively, drain and rinse chickpeas packed in water/sea salt in glass jars (these do not require a pre-soak).
Place chickpeas on cookie sheets. Spread them out as they will dry much more quickly.
Dehydrate in a warm oven ideally set no higher than 150 °F/ 65 °C or a dehydrator with stainless steel trays. If your oven only goes down to 170 °F/ 77 °C that is fine. You will just end up with slightly toasted chickpea flour.
When chickpeas are thoroughly dried after 4-6 hours, remove and cool to room temperature.
Grind in any standard grain grinder.
Use chickpea flour in your favorite baking recipes as a delicious and nutritious gluten free and grain free alternative.
Chickpeas in glass jars packed in water and salt can be substituted for dried chickpeas to save the time required for soaking. Proceed directly to step #5 - the drain and rinse step.
If you plan to use chickpea flour only on an occasional basis, feel free to proceed directly to step #9 which grinds the chickpeas. Raw, ground chickpea flour is not as nutritious or easily digested, but can be used in a pinch.
John Moody is an author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses.
He recently published his first book, The Frugal Homesteader: Living the Good Life on Less.