Sourdough bread taps into grain’s goodness

The fermentation process used to make sourdough has many health benefits that researchers are starting to understand

Despite what you may have heard, wheat and the bread made from it is good for you.

Once referred to as the staff of life, bread has become the scapegoat for a number of health ailments ranging from obesity to psychosis.

Wheat, being the main ingredient in bread, has suffered the same fate, as have grains like barley and rye.

Like so many health fads, a few coincidental facts and misconstrued notions have spawned the idea that everyone should abstain from bread made from wheat.

While there are people who cannot tolerate certain grains because of an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease, it does not mean everyone else must abstain. That logic would imply that no one can eat sugar because some people are diabetic.

Many variables, such as genetics, metabolism and even the how food is prepared, can affect our body’s response.

In spite of the gluten-free trend, sourdough bread has become popular for its taste and also for health reasons.

This type of bread may date back to 1500 BCE. The yeast we use for baking today was not used until a few centuries ago, so by mixing equal parts of water and flour and leaving them to ferment, a starter that acts like baker’s yeast was created.

The fermentation takes place because “wild” yeast and lactic acid bacteria break down the sugars in the flour. This type of fermentation also takes place in other foods like yogurt, pickles and sauerkraut. Gases cause the dough to rise.

Today, we know how beneficial these bacteria are for good gut health. The sourdough fermentation process has many health benefits researchers are starting to understand.

Like other breads, sourdough’s nutritive content depends upon whether refined or whole grain flour is used. According to an article on the Healthline website, a 50 gram slice of bread may contain about 162 calories, two to four grams of fibre, and 32 grams of carbs, as well as protein, fat and various minerals. Whole grain breads contain minerals, such as potassium, phosphate, magnesium, and zinc. However, according to Healthline, bread made the traditional way contains phytic acid or phytates, which make it difficult for the body to absorb these minerals.

The fermentation process occurring in sourdough bread, however, lowers its pH making it more acidic and this counteracts the antinutritive effects of the phytates, enabling the body to absorb these important minerals.

Researchers suggest that sourdough bread may also be easier to digest than traditional bread because of its “prebiotic content and its probiotic-like properties.” Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres like those found in the sourdough bread and beneficial gut bacteria feed off these. The probiotics are the beneficial bacteria found in foods like yogurt.

Eating foods regularly that contain prebiotics and probiotics improve your digestion and that in turn has a positive effect on your health, according to a study on the Pubmed website, which posts scholarly articles on biotechnology.

The popular premise today is that because of its gluten content, bread made from wheat is bad for you. Gluten is a type of protein found in several grains and is what gives bread dough its elasticity. People with celiac disease are very allergic to gluten and can suffer severe side effects.

In an article in the Guardian, an interesting conjecture was made. The article, entitled “Could sourdough bread be the answer to the gluten sensitivity epidemic?” quotes scientists who bring into question commonly held beliefs about gluten. According to the article, Alessio Fassano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, believes raising awareness of celiac disease has been a blessing and a curse. He is quoted as saying, “we created this monster.”

This comment was in response to what has happened since doctors tried to educate people about celiac disease. With the public more aware of this disease and the availability of gluten-free products, many jumped to the conclusion, without any scientific basis, that gluten could be responsible for many health problems.

Books such as Wheat Belly made the idea popular. The idea caught on because of its simplicity. In the same article, Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, pointed out that the bulk of non-celiac persons who are on a gluten-free diet have no reason to be on it. Fassano also says wheat itself has not changed but items like vital gluten and enzymes are added to breads and processed foods. These and other additives may be responsible for people’s sensitivity.

Interestingly, research shows that the fermentation process in the making of sourdough bread significantly degrades gluten, thereby making it easier to digest. It does not totally degrade gluten but people with the sensitivity have been able to eat it without ill effects.

As well, home-made sourdough bread would have none of the additives found in highly processed commercial breads and foods.

Another significant benefit of sourdough bread is that it has a lower glycemic index and may have a positive effect on blood sugar and insulin levels.

Once again, Healthline states research shows fermentation “may modify the structure of the carb molecules, reducing its glycemic index and slowing down the speed at which sugars enter the bloodstream, allowing for better blood sugar control and improved insulin sensitivity.”

This is good news for people who are pre-diabetic and those hoping to keep their weight under control.

As with most research, there are studies that may be inconclusive or disagree, but many nutritionists, doctors, and scientists do agree that simpler, unprocessed foods are more nutritious.

Natural processes like fermentation that takes place in the making of sourdough bread are being found to provide many health benefits.

Rather than vilify natural, wholesome foods, perhaps more research could be done to verify what really is causing health ailments before foods are branded as bad for you.

On an economic note, since authentic sourdough bread does not use commercial yeast, if there are supply shortages for any reason, one is not prohibited from making bread and other baked goods where starter can be used.

For those interested in a good recipe for sourdough bread, try www.ilovecooking.ie/features/sourdough-bread-masterclass-with-patrick-ryan/.

Another website has a guide on how to bake with a cast iron Dutch oven, which is what I use. It can be found at thebreadguide.com/baking-sourdough-bread-in-a-dutch-oven-full-guide/.

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