Watermelon seed flour is a new arrival on the health food scene. You'll find recipes for using it on Paleo diet blogs. But how does it compare to other flours? Nutrition Diva investigates.
This topic was suggested by a long-time Nutrition Diva listener, Staci, who sent me a picture of something called watermelon seed flour. "Is this another hyped up thing or is it legit? Does it work like wheat flour?"
I have to admit that Staci's email was the first time I'd heard about watermelon seed flour. Come to think of it, with the advent of seedless watermelons (which surely ranks as one of the top accomplishments of the modern era), I can't remember the last time I even saw a watermelon seed. Apparently, all those seeds that are no longer clogging up our fruit salads have now been ground up and rebranded as a low-carb, grain-free flour alternative.
Is watermelon seed flour nutritious?
A quarter-cup of watermelon seed flour provides 15 grams of fat, 9 grams of protein, and just 3 grams of carbohydrate. The high fat content meants it's relatively high in calories, too. A quarter cup of watermelon seed flour has 180 calories, compared with 160 in almond flour, 130 in coconut flour, and 110 calories in whole wheat flour. The nutritional profile of watermelon seed flour is most similar to that of almond flour.
But what's not in watermelon seed flour appears to be just as important.
What's not in watermelon seed flour?
According to one of the leading purveyors of watermelon seed flour, it is not just grain- and gluten-free but also "Big 8 free." That means that it doesn't contain any of the eight foods responsible for 90% of all food allergy reactions. The "Big 8," as they are called, are (roughly in order, from most to least common): dairy, shellfish, fish, wheat, eggs, nuts, peanuts, and soy.
Contrary to some mistaken impressions, eating a food like wheat or soy does not increase your chances of developing an allergy to it.
Being free of common allergens might seem like a pretty big plus. And, indeed, many consumers interpret this sort of front-of-package labeling as an indication that foods that are free of these allergens are somehow more healthful or nutritious. But for the 95% of the population who do not have food allergies, there is no advantage to avoiding them. Contrary to some mistaken impressions, eating a food like wheat or soy does not increase your chances of developing an allergy to it.
Paleo pancakes (and other oxymorons)
Watermelon seed flour also seems to have been taken up by those who follow the "Paleo" diet, which attempts to emulate the diet eaten by the hunter-gatherer humans who roamed the earth millions of years ago, before the dawn of agriculture and domesticated livestock. The first watermelon seed flour recipe I found online was for low-carb, Paleo pancakes and waffles.
I have mixed feelings about the Paleo diet movement, which I talked about in this previous episode. Paleo enthusiasts can be awfully dogmatic about what is and isn't "Paleo-approved," which I find ironic, given how little we actually know for sure about what various Paleolithic populations ate and their health issues. And for a movement that purports to be a return to our nutritional roots, there seem to be an awful lot of highly-processed Paleo foods.
I picture early humans roaming the aisles of my local natural grocery, tossing Paleo-approved coffee creamer, energy bars, cheese puffs, and mayonnaise into their prehistoric carts, before heading home to heat up their prehistoric waffle irons for a batch of fresh watermelon seed waffles. I think something has gotten lost in translation.
For a movement that purports to be a return to our nutritional roots, there seem to be an awful lot of highly-processed Paleo foods.
What's wrong with grains?
Many people who have embraced the Paleo or low-carb ethic have come to see grains as inherently unhealthy. But apparently, people who adopt low carb and Paleo lifestyles find it challenging to go without this category of foods. In fact, most of the Paleo recipes that I've come across seem to be attempts to make bread, cookies, muffins, and other baked goods without resorting to the use of grains.
For example, you'll find lots of Paleo baking flour mixes -- both pre-packaged and recipes you can make at home. Most contain some combination of almond, coconut, cassava, tapioca, or arrowroot starch. Many of these products claim that you can simply substitute them for the same amount of regular wheat flour. But if you're expecting to get the same results, you are likely to be disappointed. The gluten protein in wheat and other grains has unique properties which add strength, elasticity, and lift to batters and doughs. Grain-free and gluten-free baked goods tend to be heavier and denser than their grain-containing counterparts.
So, to answer Staci's question: No, watermelon seed flour will not work like wheat flour. But if you cannot eat wheat or you just enjoy playing around with alternative flours, I'd suggest using watermelon flour similarly to the way you'd use almond flour.
Does avoiding grains make your diet healthier?
Personally, unless you have a specific intolerance, I don't think that you need to eliminate grains in order to have a healthy diet. That said, grain-based foods (especially those made with refined flour) can contribute an awful lot of calories to your diet without contributing a whole lot of nutritional value.
To the extent that avoiding grains means you end up eating fewer baked goods and more vegetables, I can see how it could improve the quality of your diet. But if you simply replace grain-based foods with an equally excessive amount of grain-free bread, crackers, cookies, muffins, and waffles, I'm not sure how much you've actually accomplished, from a nutrition perspective.
So whether your baked goods and other treats are made with wheat, rice, cassava, or watermelon seed flour, I suggest that you exercise the same degree of moderation as you would with traditional flour.