Miraculous Sourdough: Its Benefits, Fascinating Origins, and Things to Watch Out For

After over a decade of being gluten free and never thinking I would eat “real” bread again, I introduced sourdough into my diet and it has been a wonderful and delicious change that has added more diversity to my diet. To read more about my gluten-free journey and how I discovered sourdough, read more on My Gluten Journey 

So what is it about sourdough that is so much better—more digestible, healthier and more natural—than other breads? What really IS sourdough?

Sourdough is a leavened bread made with wild or naturally occurring yeast—rather than commercial yeast—that is allowed to prove and therefore ferment for a long period of time—usually 8-12 hours or more. According to Aline Petre writing in Healthline, “Most leavened breads use commercial bakers yeast to help the dough rise. However, traditional sourdough fermentation relies on ‘wild yeast’ and lactic acid bacteria that are naturally present in flour to leaven the bread…Wild yeast is more resistant to acidic conditions than bakers yeast.This is what allows it to work together with lactic acid-producing bacteria to help the dough rise.” And lactic acid bacteria can also be found in other good-for- your-gut fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt and pickles.

So does this long fermentation process and cultivation of wild yeast make sourdough bread “better” for you?

The short answer is yes. Partly because of the long fermentation process, sourdough is given time to break down and makes available many more nutrients of the grain than does a fast-acting yeast. Michael Pollan, author, journalist, activist, and professor at UC Berkeley School of Journalism, told The Guardian that a long fermentation process allows bacteria to fully break down the carbohydrates and gluten in bread, making it easier to digest and releasing the nutrients within it, allowing our bodies to more easily absorb them. Vanessa Kimbell, category leader of the sourdough section of The World Bread Awards and a teacher at The Sourdough School in Northampton, UK, elaborates on this  process:

“In humans, and animals with one stomach, this phytic acid [what phosphorus stored in the bran part of the grain is called] inhibits enzymes which are needed for the breakdown of proteins and starch in the stomach. It is this lack of enzymes which results in digestive difficulties.”

But, she continues, “the wild yeast and lactobacillus in the leaven neutralize the phytic acid as the bread proves through the acidification of the dough. This prevents the effects of the phytic acid and makes the bread easier for us to digest. In fact, a study conducted in 2001, proved that prolonged fermentation of whole wheat sourdough actually reduces the phytate level and increases soluble magnesium.

If phytates are what give many people digestive difficulties and if sourdough breaks down further, does that mean sourdough is gluten free?!

Not entirely; but, sourdough is much more easily digested by gluten-sensitive folks. In fact, a 2011 study conducted in Italy, “Safety for patients with celiac disease of baked goods made of wheat flour hydrolyzed during food processing,” found that “a 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with CD. Wardee Harmon, of The Traditional Cooking School, elaborates on this process and tells us that as the lactic acid bacteria that occurs in sourdough converts the sugars in wheat flour to lactic acid, the acidity increases. This acidity provides the perfect environment for the bacteria and their associated enzymes…to effectively cleave gliadin proteins [one of two main proteins found in wheat that is often resistant to enzymatic degradation and can lead to damage in the gut in certain people] before they ever reach the gut”—and therefore, before they have the opportunity to do damage!

Amazing news! Although it may be too soon to start prescribing sourdough to all celiac patients, it seems safe to say, and I can attest from my own personal experience, that sourdough is much easier on the digestive system for all people—particularly for those with gluten sensitivity—because it makes gliadin proteins easier to digest and less toxic.

But there are still things to watch out for when purchasing store-bought sourdough bread. Unfortunately, despite all the health benefits of sourdough enumerated above, you may not be getting many of these from your run-of-the-mill sourdough from the supermarket. According to Harmon, many store-bought “sourdough” breads use just a small amount of sourdough starter and throw that and other flavors in there to give the bread a sourdough taste — while the action of rising the bread is done with commercial yeast. Because of this, the store-bought breads have a “sour” flavor yet none of the nutritional benefits. Other store-bought sourdough breads might be leavened through sourdough, yet not long enough or only some of the flour was combined with the starter — which means the bread is not as nutritious as it could (and should) be. The Healthy Home Economist corroborates this, reporting that many store-bought sourdoughs, even those you can find at places like Whole Foods, contain barley malt—a sweetener—yeast
(instead of sourdough starter—the sign of an authentic sourdough loaf) and other additives and preservatives!

So be sure to do your due diligence on your store-bought loaves, checking the ingredients on the package as well as online—as they can sometimes differ. In fact, the best bet is to make your own! The Traditional Cooking School has some great recipes and even tips on making your own sourdough starter.

If you live in New York City and don’t feel up to making your own bread, I highly recommend trying sourdough from She Wolf Bakery.  Its the real deal! And delicious! You can find She Wolf sourdough at Marlow & Daughters, Roman’s,  Achilles Heel, as well at four NYC Greenmarkets.

To Learn more about fermentation, I highly recommend the book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, 2nd Edition by Sandor Ellix Katz.

If you are looking for a little inspiration on what to make with your sourdough, a delicious crostini is always a great way to go. I love Franny’s: Simple Seasonal Italian for a mouthwatering crostini, particularly the fava bean and ramp butter recipe, YUM!

Medical Disclaimer: If you are celiac or gluten sensitive and are considering adding sourdough into your diet, please do so only under the guidance of your doctor or physician. Everybody is different and has different levels of gluten sensitivity. This blog post is from my own personal experience and research and for informational purposes only. Thank You!

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash