Does sourdough bread have health benefits compared to regular wheat bread?
Some experts warn against eating bread, citing the dangers of phytic acid, gluten, and other anti nutrients in the grains that can damage your gut, bind up important nutrients, and cause allergies and sensitivities that wreak havoc throughout the body.
The problem is not the grains themselves. What many health professionals overlook is how we prepare our grains.
So… what’s the solution? Let me introduce you to my little friend: Sourdough Bread!
What is Sourdough Bread?
Sourdough bread is not so much a flavor of bread or style as it is a method of making bread.
Properly prepared sourdough bread is the truce between whole grain proponents and grain-avoiders. Sourdough has all the benefits of whole grains, and virtually none of the drawbacks.
Sourdough has only become known as “sourdough” in recent decades. For thousands of years, ALL leavened bread was sourdough bread (1).
Sourdough bread is made using natural yeast in a “start” culture to make the bread rise and get that light, fluffy, bready texture and smell we all love.
A sourdough starter is a mixture of flour and water kept at room temperature for several days until natural yeast in the air begins to populate the mixture and create a bubbly, natural, living mixture of beneficial yeast and bacteria. It’s pretty easy to create your own.
A portion of this “yeast starter” is added to the bread dough in place of the commercial active dry yeast granules from the store.
This “natural yeast” requires a much longer rise time (called “fermentation”) and carries a lot of benefits over bread made with commercial yeast.
Wait, So What’s the Difference?
When you bake bread using “commercial” or “baker’s yeast” in the little foil pouches from the grocery store, you add a couple teaspoons of dry yeast granules to the dough, knead and knead and knead some more, let it rise, then bake. The whole process takes me 2 to 4 hours when I make bread this way.
On the other hand, sourdough bread requires, at minimum, at least 12 hours of fermentation time. Some methods let it ferment for days. Sourdough doesn’t require more “hands on” time. In fact, it doesn’t require as much kneading, so I think it’s actually a little easier to make.
I start my sourdough bread the night before by mixing my “start”, which I keep in the fridge between bread-making sessions, with flour and water. This is called “feeding” the start. This ferments on the counter overnight.
In the morning, I save a bit of this mixture back in the fridge for next time. I add a few more ingredients to the dough and it rises or ferments for several more hours on my counter top, letting the good yeast and bacteria work their magic on the dough, before it’s ready to cook.
About 20 hours (versus 4 hours) after I originally started the dough, I have myself delicious, homemade, sourdough bread.
P.S. Sourdough bread does not have to be in a fancy artisan-shaped loaf. I bake mine up like any old bread and we eat it as sandwiches, toast, french toast… any place we would normally eat bread.
Benefits of Sourdough Bread
Whole wheat sourdough is the perfect compromise in the wheat debate and the missing piece of the healthy diet puzzle for so many reasons.
Easier to Digest
It’s probably no surprise to you when I say you are not a cow. And unlike a cow, you are not equipped to digest large amounts of wheat without some sort of outside help- namely fermentation by bacteria.
Animals equipped to digest grains have as many as four stomachs, longer digestive tracts, and slower digestion times. Large populations of bacteria in their gut help digest the grains for them.
Humans have used methods like sourdough, soaking, and sprouting for thousands of years to prepare grains, capitalize on bacteria and make them easier for us to digest.
Only since the mid 1900s have fast-acting commercial yeasts and rushed preparation methods been used in bread-making, which coincides with the explosion of chronic diseases and, more recently, wheat and gluten sensitivities (2, 3).
Enhanced Nutrient Content
Because grains are the seed of the plant, they have lots of tricks up their sleeves to protect themselves from early sprouting or damage, like (4):
- Phytic acid to tightly bind up minerals for the seed to use when it’s ready to sprout (making it difficult for you to get those minerals from the grain too)
- Enzyme inhibitors that make it more difficult to break down (or for you to digest)
- Gluten (a protein in some grains) that often causes allergies and leaky gut
- Complex sugars and starches (FODMAPS) that your body cannot easily break down
But… give that seed some moisture, warmth, time, and slight acidity and that signals the seed to sprout! The phytic acid will release the minerals, the enzyme inhibitors deactivate, and the complex sugars begin breaking down for the seedling to use.
A sourdough start provides the PERFECT environment for all this to happen, plus the added bonus of microbes like yeast and bacteria to boost the breakdown and pre-digestion of the FODMAPS, gluten, fiber, and other difficult parts of the grain… making it all super available to you and me (5,6, 7)!
Fermenting the dough basically allows all the beneficial yeast and bacteria in the dough to essentially pre-digest the wheat for us and make many minerals and antioxidants more available to our digestive system, while reducing the anti-nutrients like gluten and phytic acid, which can keep you from absorbing minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc in your meal, and damage your gut lining.
Lower Glycemic Index
Sourdough bread has less of an effect on blood sugar and insulin levels, which we call a lower glycemic index. This could make it a better option for those with diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, or anyone wanting to lower their risk of those conditions (me, me!) (8, 9, 10)
Natural Yeast is Tolerated Better
Today’s baker’s yeast is made in mass from a single strain of yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae (11).
On the other hand, natural yeast starts are a thriving community of many strains of yeast and bacteria with health benefits, like lactobacilli (12).
For whatever reason, some people don’t tolerate yeast from S. Cerevisiae, but do fine with the natural yeast found in true sourdough.
You can confirm whether you react to baker’s or brewer’s yeast using a Mediator Release Test.
Gluten-free Wheat Bread
Yes, you heard me right. Real, wheat bread that is gluten free.
With so many people today with Celiac’s Disease or gluten sensitivity, this is a BIG DEAL.
In order for something to be labeled “Gluten Free,” the FDA mandates it must have less than 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten contamination (16).
Multiple studies show that whole wheat flour allowed to ferment long enough (this is the key) contains much less than 20ppm. (Regular wheat bread contains upwards of 80,000 ppm, as a reference.) (13,14)
One study showed that patients with Celiac’s Disease who ate sourdough baked goods for 2 months (made with flour that fermented for 48 hours) showed NO symptoms, NO small intestine damage, and ZERO rise in levels of an autoimmune antibody called anti-tTG (17)!
In my own *very official* experiments using my home-made sourdough bread I’ve learned:
- First, my husband, who cannot eat regular wheat bread can eat any amount of my sourdough bread with no reactions.
- Second, a cousin with Celiac’s disease was brave enough to eat some sourdough bread during a visit. She reported no symptoms at all.
- Third, a brave friend with Celiac’s disease also tried a loaf of sourdough bread I made. She did have symptoms after a few days of eating it, but reported they were surprisingly mild considering how much she had eaten. (Note: I don’t recommend eating sourdough if it gives you symptoms, even if they are more mild, because serious damage to your gut, brain and immune system is probably still occuring.)
I want to note that the sourdough recipe I shared with all these people only ferments most of the wheat flour for about 5 hours, whereas studies that result in gluten-free sourdough are fermenting their flours for 24-48 hours. I think that is why my friend reacted. But I do believe if she tries a different recipe, she could successfully eat sourdough wheat bread even with Celiac’s disease.
Real Bread from Real Wheat
If you’ve ever lived gluten-free, wheat-free, or grain-free, and relied on spongy, imitation, gluten-free breads made from all kinds of nonsense, you know what a big deal it is to eat REAL wheat bread that doesn’t cause problems.
Not to mention, most gluten-free breads don’t come with an ingredient list that would pass my “real food” test.
My husband cannot eat wheat, and relied on gluten-free breads as a substitute for a year or two before we ventured into sourdough.
What a relief for him to be able to have real wheat bread again that doesn’t cause any immune flares or arthritis pain.
Not only bread, but we can make rolls, cookies, cinnamon rolls, waffles, pancakes and so much more using sourdough. Not that I recommend eating copious amounts of those things, but it is nice to have them as an option.
Longer Shelf Life Without Chemicals
Because it has a lower pH, sourdough actually lasts longer at room temperature than other homemade breads, without the preservatives and other additives (15).
Sourdough Doesn’t Have to Taste Sour
For years I struggled with the idea of sourdough bread because I thought it would taste, well, sour.
I didn’t realize that sourdough is more of a technique than a flavor.
Yes, commercial sourdough breads do tend to be more sour. And yes, the longer you ferment your bread dough, the more sour it tends to become.
But a lot of it depends on your yeast starter. There are lots of tricks to make a more “mild” tasting sourdough start, including feeding it more often, keeping it in the fridge, etc.
My favorite trick is just asking someone with a well-established, mild-tasting start to share a bit with you. Then wha-la! You have your own sourdough start that will make infinite loaves of bread and propagate itself forever (if you “feed” it, of course).
Interesting fact: the Boudin Bakery in San Francisco has kept the same sourdough start alive for more than 160 years!
Benefits for the Whole Family
Even though nobody else in our family has a notable reaction to wheat or gluten, I bake fresh sourdough bread for all of us every week. I want them to have all the benefits listed above.
Also, store-bought bread has lots of additives, and the grains used have usually gone through harsh milling processes that are damaging to the grain (4,18). We won’t go into that in this article though.
To top the cake, there is concerning research showing that gluten causes leaky gut in EVERYONE, not just people with Celiac’s Disease or gluten-sensitivity. All of us. And leaky gut seems to be a precursor to many autoimmune diseases, diabetes, heart disease, and so much more (19).
So inducing leaky gut in myself and my children many times a day as we chow down on wheat is something I prefer to avoid.
Cautions with Sourdough Bread
Although research is finding that properly-prepared sourdough with the right species of bacteria and yeast is essentially gluten-free, we don’t have fancy tech in our own kitchens to test the bread we make or buy and know for sure.
Recipes being used in studies I’ve reviewed are only finding it is gluten free after 24-48 hours of fermentation with certain bacteria and fungi (yeast). It’s hard to say how this translates into actual sourdough bread making because their lab methods of growing the microbes and then fermenting wheat flour don’t mimic exactly what we are doing in our kitchens with a sourdough start. I hope more practical studies will be done testing gluten levels in sourdough starts used in real kitchens.
If you have a gluten allergy or sensitivity, be cautious. I will share some tips below.
Other Grains to Try
I also just want to bring up that ancient forms of wheat like spelt, einkorn, emmer and kamut are another option if you don’t tolerate regular wheat.
Modern wheat varieties began to be used extensively around World War II, but these newer wheat varieties might lend to the widespread problems with gluten and wheat tolerance.
As mentioned, my husband cannot eat wheat, but we discovered he tolerates spelt, an ancient form of wheat, just fine. I use spelt to make chocolate chip cookies, biscuits, thicken gravy or pie syrups and other places where sourdough just doesn’t make sense.
These ancient grains do contain gluten, so if you have Celiac’s Disease, you’ll want to sourdough them first.
Interestingly, there is evidence that some of these more ancient grains may not contain the same gluten sequence that seems to cause so many problems today, though I haven’t seen any for-sure evidence yet (20, 21, 22, 23). Something you may want to look into more for yourself.
We make our sourdough bread with a mixture of wheat and spelt flour that I grind myself. I feed wheat flour to my starter so it gets the longest fermentation time, then add spelt flour in the last step, where it will get a shorter fermentation time.
Where to Get Sourdough Bread
Where to Buy Sourdough
Buying real sourdough bread is a bit tricky these days, at least in the rural area where I live. Most sourdough breads in the bakery and bread aisle are not true sourdough. They’ve had souring agents added to imitate the sourdough.
My best advice is to look at the ingredient list. If it lists yeast, it’s probably NOT true sourdough. The ingredients should be simple, something like flour, water, salt, and oil. It may also list the sourdough start as “cultured” flour of some sort (24).
But the bottom line is manufacturers are really tricky and it’s hard to know for sure.
If you buy it from a bakery, you could also ask how it’s made.
Buying sourdough is more dangerous for those who need to strictly avoid gluten because even if it is REAL sourdough, they may have contaminated the loaf with flour that hasn’t been fermented along with the dough the whole time (like rolling it out on a floured surface before the final rise, or dusting the loaf with flour before baking).
Also there could just be enough flour floating around in a commercial bakery to significantly contaminate your bread.
For those with gluten-intolerance, you might be best off just making it yourself. Or paying a friend that loves to bake to make it for you.
How to Make Sourdough
I know bread baking is a less well known art these days that can be intimidating for a lot of people. Let alone sourdough bread baking with natural yeast and long rise times and all that!
I promise it’s not actually too complicated, it really doesn’t involve much hands on time, and it’s more forgiving than regular homemade bread in many ways.
Here is the recipe I use: Simple Sourdough Recipe Bread for Beginners.
Most important for success is to get a good, healthy natural yeast start going. You’ve got three options to get your own sourdough starter:
Option 1: Your best chances of success are to get a starter culture from someone else that has a lively, thriving, and good-tasting sourdough starter going already. Put a message out on social media. Most people who make real sourdough are pretty passionate about it and happy to share. If you live near me, I’d be happy to get you started with some of mine as well.
Option 2: Order a dehydrated starter culture online. You will still have to revive it by feeding it with flour and water for a few days, but it is easier than starting from scratch, and you only have to buy it one time, and then it will last forever.
Option 3: It is pretty simple to make your own natural yeast sourdough starter by mixing flour and water together in a jar, leaving at room temperature, then dumping half the mixture and feeding it more flour and water every 8-12 hours for several days until it starts to bubble and double in size quickly after feedings. You can find numerous tutorials online. I tried this a few times myself, but I could never get mine to taste as good as the starter I have now (which I got from a friend). Probably because I forgot to feed it super regularly at when it’s getting established.
Once you have a healthy, active starter culture, you can just stick it in the fridge and only feed it when you use it, or at least once every week or two if you don’t use it to keep it healthy.
One of the most difficult parts of bread-making with baker’s yeast for me was kneading the dough enough to develop the gluten and get a good, puffy loaf.
But sourdough is pretty forgiving here. Whether I knead it a lot or a little doesn’t seem to matter much. In the end I always get a nice puffy loaf.
The amount of time you let it ferment is very flexible too, especially the first ferment. Your final rise in the actual bread pans needs to be the most carefully watched so it doesn’t overflow the pan and make a mess.
Easy Sourdough Bread Recipe for Beginners
My friend Lisa shared her sourdough recipe and starter with me, and I love it! It is a super simple recipe that turns out great every time for me. The starter has a nice mild flavor that most people cannot even tell is “sourdough.”
Check it out: Simple Sourdough Bread for Beginners. Enjoy!
If you are looking for a good sourdough discard recipe, or maybe sourdough bread seems a little daunting, here is our favorite Sourdough Waffle or Pancake Recipe:
Sourdough bread is the missing link to a healthy diet whether you are a proponent of a grain free diet or plentiful whole grains.
It has all the benefits (and then some) touted by whole wheat, and none of the drawbacks of wheat like gluten, phytic acid, and enzyme inhibitors.
Sourdough bread is more nutritious, easier to digest, and even gluten free if prepared correctly, compared to commercial yeast bread.
And best of all, there is evidence those with Celiac’s disease or gluten intolerance can tolerate true sourdough bread!
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