But with a lot of diets, classic banana bread is out of the question. Most recipes call for white flour, granulated sugar and brown sugar, full-fat butter, and of course, bananas (which are pretty high in fructose themselves).
Overall, baked goods aren’t exactly teeming with nutrients. The biggest problem with cookies, cakes, and breads when you’re trying to eat healthier is that they’re full of empty calories.
Take sugar, for example. Cook’s Illustrated has a test kitchen–approved recipe for banana bread that calls for three-quarters of a cup of brown sugar to be folded into the batter—that’s equal to 600 calories of pure carbohydrates. There are no proteins, essential fats, vitamins or minerals, or fiber in sugar, so it’s processed very quickly by the body. This causes blood glucose and insulin levels to spike, and then immediately drop as the body plays catch up (also known as a “sugar rush”).
Over time, excess sugar consumption can lead to insulin resistance, which leads to metabolic syndrome, obesity, heart disease, and even Type 2 diabetes. At the end of the day, sugar contains a lot of calories that are used purely for energy, but lacking a lot of the necessary nutrients we need to stay healthy.
The same could certainly be said for other popular baking ingredients like processed white flour and artificial flavors and sweeteners—they’re high in calories, but relatively low in nutrition. And if you’re trying to lose weight or live a healthier lifestyle, that’s the exact opposite of what you want. But eating better doesn’t mean eschewing all your traditional favorite foods. It might involve a little more research and recipe testing, but it’s possible to have your banana bread and eat it, too.
Here, we break down all the ingredients that you should swap in for a Paleo-friendly banana bread and unveil the perfect caveman-inspired recipe at the end.
Trade out: all-purpose flour
Swap in: coconut flour, almond flour, hazelnut meal, quinoa flour
Because the Paleo diet requires that you abstain from grains—check out this list if you need a refresher on Paleo-approved foods—basic all-purpose flour is out. But you don’t want that stuff, anyway. Most conventional flours are bleached white with chemicals. And during the refining process, in which the flour is ground down to the powdery substance that most home bakers are familiar with, beneficial unsaturated fatty acids are destroyed. That leaves processed flour pretty depleted of any nutrients.
Ditch the bleached stuff and grab a colorful alternative such as coconut flour, almond flour, hazelnut meal, or quinoa flour. Usually made from nuts or gluten-free grains, they’re better able to retain vitamins and nutrients because there’s very little processing involved. For example, coconut flour—one of the favorites of the Thrive Market kitchen—comes from coconut meat that’s been dehydrated and finely ground. This process causes coconut to lose a lot of its dietary fat and water, and the coconut flavor. Sure, that's a bummer if you love that tropical taste, but flavorless coconut flour becomes a great substitute for regular flour since it won’t mess with the taste of what you’re creating in the kitchen, and it still retains its fiber and protein content.
Almond flour can be a great swap, too, because it mimics the consistency of regular flour a bit better in the baking process. Whereas coconut flour can tend to suck up moisture, requiring you to add more water or oil to a dish in order to get the desired texture, that’s not an issue with almond flour. And almond flour contains far more healthy fats than coconut flour, as well as a little more protein, but both are superior to regular processed flour.
There are other flour alternatives that work when avoiding grains, too, including macadamia nut meal, quinoa flour (technically a seed, not a grain!), white rice flour, hazelnut flour, and even potato flour. When experimenting, it’s best to stick to the recipe as is the first time you make a dish and then branch out and try a new flour. Remember that these alternatives do have a slightly different texture than conventional white flour, so it might be necessary to adjust any liquid, fat, or acidic content in order to replicate a recipe as close to the original as possible.
Trade out: table salt
Swap in: Himalayan pink salt
It seems like a minor ingredient, but if you’ve ever accidently skipped the salt in a batch of chocolate chip cookies or double chocolate brownies you know that it’s integral to the well-rounded taste of any sweet dessert. Salt brings out the flavor of other ingredients like vanilla, cinnamon, almond, and sugar, and keeps baked goods from tasting flat or overly sweet.
But don’t use table salt. Not only is it milder than other varieties—so you’re likely to use more—it’s also highly processed. Meant to remove impurities, the processing also nixes of a lot of the essential trace minerals that actually make salt good for us. Table salt is usually enriched with iodine, a practice that was meant to prevent iodine deficiency in developing countries; but too much iodine can be just as harmful to your thyroid as getting too little. And anticaking agents are usually added to keep table salt from clumping together, which are typically nasty chemicals.
While it’s not the worst thing you could add to baked goods, sea salt or Himalayan pink salt is one step better—both have less additives, but more added benefits. Sea salt is typically harvested from ocean water—hence the name—and contains small amounts of trace minerals like potassium, iron, and zinc. Himalayan pink salt is harvested in mines in Pakistan and also contains small amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium.
Some would even say that sea salt and pink salt have a stronger kick than processed table salt, so using it for cooking and baking gives you a little more bang for your buck.
Trade out: unsalted butter
Swap in: grass-fed butter, coconut oil, grapeseed oil
If you’ve already adopted the Paleo lifestyle, this won’t come as a surprise to you. But if you’re in the thick of crossing over, know this—you’ve gotta break up with dairy. Not all dairy, but most of it.
There are three reasons for this. First, milk and cheese weren’t technically available to our prehistoric ancestors, so it's definitely not Paleo. Second, dairy is a highly allergenic substance. Sixty percent of adults in the United States can’t properly digest milk because of a common genetic disposition to lactose intolerance, and cow’s milk is one of the most common allergens amongst children. Finally, most dairy cows are grain-fed, as opposed to being grass-fed.
There are a lot of implications that go along with animals raised on grains, and typically livestock that grow up in these Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) are fed corn- or grain-based foods that are highly processed and loaded with hormones and antibiotics to encourage growth. CAFOs are considered a highly controversial aspect of industrial farming because livestock are raised in such poor conditions—so if you’re an animal lover, you might consider going for grass-fed dairy for ethical reasons.
While it’s not ideal for animals, these chemicals can also get passed on to some of the meat and dairy we consume. On the contrary, studies show that the byproducts of grass-fed animals are less risky and more nutritious with healthy fats, higher levels of essential vitamins like A and E, and more micronutrients.
Because it’s so much better for you, grass-fed butter is actually Paleo-friendly. However, getting your hands on grass-fed varieties might sometimes prove difficult. In that case, feel free to swap in Paleo oils instead, such as coconut, grapeseed, or macadamia nut oils. (Denser oils like avocado or olive oil might be a little too heavy and have too strong of a flavor profile for sweets, although they’re great options to use when cooking savory dishes.)
Trade out: brown sugar
Swap in: agave nectar or raw honey
In general, sweeteners are a bit tricky on the Paleo diet. The strictest followers often argue that sugar in every form is bad for you. While the sweet stuff isn’t exactly a health food, not all forms of sugar are created equal, and for many people moderation is an important part of living a healthy life. That’s why some of the most famous proponents of the Paleo diet like MarksDailyApple.com founder Mark Sisson and functional medicine practioner Chris Kresser are “flexible” primal eaters.
If introducing a little natural sweetness into your desserts keeps you from falling off the Paleo wagon and devouring an entire bag of fun-sized Snickers, then you’re probably better off using it than completely abstaining from it.
The trick is to find the highest quality sweetener you can. Don’t settle for processed white sugar, brown sugar, or chemical sweeteners, which are basically empty calories that mess with your blood glucose levels. Instead, try to pick all-natural sweeteners that have been minimally-processed and are plant-based. Raw honey and agave nectar both have a lower glycemic index than white sugar, meaning they don’t have the same crazy effects on blood sugar levels. And raw honey is pretty impressive in its own right—because it’s unpasteurized, it still contains tons of enzymes, antioxidants, and amino acids.
When using them for baking, it might help to know that raw honey tends to be more viscous than agave nectar, which is thinner and more fluid-like. So, even though you can swap honey and agave nectar for each other in a one to one ratio, they’ll bake with slightly different flavors and textures.
The ultimate Paleo banana bread recipe
Now that you’re up to speed on alternative flours, natural sweeteners, and Paleo-friendly cooking oils, it’s time to reveal our ultimate banana bread recipe. From the kitchen of Merce Muse, our food editor extraordinaire, this loaf went through a few different iterations before this recipe was finally deemed “The One.”
It calls for five extra-ripe bananas to really nail down the classic flavor and add natural sweetness and moisture to the batter. For the alternative flour, it was important to choose one that would retain a dense, almost gooey texture even when fully cooked so the loaf dry up and crumbly. Because coconut flour tends to be a little drier, Merce opted for almond flour instead. The recipe also calls for grapeseed oil because it has a slightly more buttery flavor than most cooking oils, but you could also use coconut oil instead.
Paleo Banana Bread
Yield: 12 mini loaves, or about 24 servings
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
5 large, ripe bananas
3 ½ cups almond flour
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon vanilla powder
1 ¼ teaspoons sea salt
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
3 large eggs
½ cup raw honey (or you can use agave if not strictly Paleo)
¼ cup coconut oil
½ cup chopped walnuts, plus more for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray a mini loaf tray with nonstick spray.
Place bananas in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until just blended. Set aside.
Whisk together almond flour, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, sea salt, and baking soda in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, agave, and grapeseed oil. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry and thoroughly combine. Fold in the pureèd bananas and walnuts. Let dough sit five minutes.
Divide dough between the tray’s 12 pre-greased molds, sprinkle extra chopped walnuts on top, and bake 15 to 17 minutes. Let loaves cool in molds slightly before serving.
Paleo bakers, we want to hear from you! What are your favorite must-have ingredients for recreating your favorite “bad” desserts in a health-conscious way? Let us know in the comments below.