Have you heard the good news, that sourdough is better for you than other bread? Or perhaps you thought it was just a rumor? Well it is true! Scientists, nutritionists, and health experts all agree that naturally-fermented sourdough bread is healthier than ‘regular’ bread – for a multitude of reasons! Sourdough is more nutritious, easier to digest, and has a lower glycemic index. Sourdough also contains less gluten than other bread. So much so, that folks who typically suffer from gluten sensitivities can often eat artisan or homemade sourdough bread with little-to-no ill effects*. Read along to learn exactly why! I think you’ll soon understand why homemade sourdough is the only bread we eat.
If you’re new to sourdough and don’t have a sourdough starter yet, learn how to make one from scratch here. Or, choose the fool-proof option and pick up a living organic sourdough starter from our shop! Then you can carry on to bake healthy sourdough bread, focaccia, pizza crust, crackers, cornbread, and more!
*Disclaimer: Wheat-based sourdough is not guaranteed to be safe for those diagnosed with Celiac Disease or serious wheat allergies. However, it is reported to be well-tolerated for those with mild to moderate gluten sensitivities. This article is not intended to treat any illnesses or provide medical advice. If you suffer from gluten intolerance, please consult with your doctor or proceed at your own risk. Also, just because sourdough is healthier than other bread, that doesn’t mean you should eat it all day, every day! Everything in moderation.
Let’s start with a quick primer on how sourdough is made, because the process is central to understanding why sourdough is healthier than standard, non-fermented bread.
How is sourdough made?
Sourdough bread is naturally-leavened. Rather than relying on commercial or instant yeast like most bread, sourdough baking utilizes a living culture or ‘sourdough starter’ as a rising agent. A sourdough starter is full of several strains of beneficial bacteria or probiotics and wild yeast, including lactobacillus. When active sourdough starter is mixed with flour and water to create dough, the healthy bacteria and yeast feed on the flour, converting it to lactic acid and carbon dioxide.
Lacto-fermentation is what gives sourdough bread air pockets, a fluffy texture, and a slightly tangy flavor. However, most homemade sourdough bread isn’t all that sour-tasting at all! It is simply called ‘sourdough’ because it is fermented. And the simple fact that it is fermented is why sourdough bread is better for you. Rise and flavor aside, lactic acid bacteria causes numerous beneficial changes to the nutrients, gluten, and other compounds found in sourdough – as explained in detail to follow.
Not all sourdough is created equal.
Keep in mind that the process of making sourdough is not an exact science. Except in a laboratory or factory-like setting, no two loaves are the same! Many variables exist: the kind of flour used, the strain of beneficial bacteria and yeasts living in the sourdough starter culture, and also each baker’s routine. Some dough ferments for an extended period of time, and others for only a couple of hours. Factors such as temperature and humidity also influence the fermentation process.
Therefore, while the health benefits of sourdough we’re exploring today are regarded as generally true, they may not be entirely consistent or to the same degree for every loaf of bread or person. Furthermore, keep in mind that not all bread marketed as ‘sourdough’ has gone through a traditional long fermentation process. Most grocery store sourdough utilizes instant yeast instead of a natural sourdough starter culture, has been artificially flavored to taste sour, and also contains preservatives and additional ingredients. Artisan (small bakery) or homemade sourdough promises the most nutritional value.
Sourdough and Gluten
Does sourdough contain gluten?
While sourdough isn’t considered entirely ‘gluten-free’, it does contain far less gluten than unfermented bread and average wheat products! Even if you begin your sourdough with 100% wheat flour, the fermentation process significantly degrades the gluten over time. Don’t get me wrong; gluten isn’t necessarily bad. It’s simply a protein, and what gives bread wonderful structure and texture. Yet this comes as wonderful news for gluten-sensitive individuals – myself included! In fact, homemade sourdough is the only kind of wheat or bread product I can comfortably eat.
It is also possible to make 100% gluten free sourdough, such as using brown rice flour, oat flour, or similar GF flours. We have experimented with it, and even shared tutorials on how to make gluten-free sourdough starter, crackers, and bread. But to be completely honest, it’s not nearly as good as wheat-based sourdough.
Gluten degradation & digestive issues
In an unfermented state, the gluten and other carbohydrates in wheat or rye grains are indigestible to some people. In response, the person experiences bloating, gas, pain, or other uncomfortable symptoms. (Been there, done that!) The associated gut inflammation also prevents the absorption of other essentnial nutrients, taking away from general well-being.
Repeated studies show that lactic acid bacteria fermentation of wheat and rye sourdough modifies the molecular structure and/or reduces certain carbohydrates and proteins – including gluten. The resulting sourdough is easier to digest and triggers fewer unpleasant reactions. In general, the longer sourdough is allowed to ferment, the more gluten is degraded and reduced.
That is why we prefer to ferment our homemade sourdough for many hours. Our favorite simple sourdough bread recipe starts with a four to five-hour bulk ferment at room temperature, followed by an additional 8 to 12-hour (overnight) cold-proof in the refrigerator before baking. However, as fermentation and gluten degradation continues beyond 24 hours, it may also negatively impact the structure or rise of the bread. You’ll have to experiment and see what works best for you!
The Enhanced Nutritional Value of Sourdough
As the fermentation process degrades gluten in sourdough, many other natural compounds are enhanced or created. Here is an impressive, science-backed list of why sourdough is healthier than other bread:
One study showed that naturally fermented wheat or rye sourdough contained 10 to 17 times the amount of leucine and isoleucine than non-fermented bread. Leucine and isoleucine are both branch chain amino acids (BCAAs). These are two of the nine essential amino acids that are critical to our health, but aren’t synthesized by our bodies. Meaning, they must be obtained through diet alone. BCAAs are often found in protein-rich foods like dairy, meat, and eggs. Or, in dietary supplements like whey or soy protein powders. BCAAs promote strong healthy muscle growth, reduces muscle wasting, and eases muscle soreness.
Lower glycemic index
The elevated concentration of branched chain amino acids (described above) in sourdough also reduces post-meal blood glucose levels by stimulating insulin response. Combined with the fact that sourdough bread is digested more slowly than other bread, people experience a significantly lower glycemic response (or less of a blood sugar spike) after eating sourdough. People also report feeling full or more satiated for a longer period after eating sourdough than basic bread. The result is a reduced risk for insulin resistance, weight gain, and diabetes. Holla!
All of this is increasingly true if you make your homemade sourdough with at least a portion of complex (non-refined) whole grain flour. For example, whole wheat, rye, spelt, or Einkorn flours. I have Type 1 Diabetes, and need far less insulin to “cover” a slice of homemade healthy sourdough bread compared to standard bread. Our go-to sourdough recipe combines 65% white bread flour, 30% whole wheat, and 5% rye.
A 2018 scientific report published by Nature Research showed a notable increase in the concentration of 28 different peptides in fermented sourdough. Nearly all of these peptides (short chain amino acids) have known antioxidant or antihypertensive properties. They help reduce free radicals in the body and reduce blood pressure (respectively), providing protection against cancer, stroke, and heart disease.
Less Phytic Acid, Increased Mineral Bioavailability
Grains and legumes contain a natural substance called phytic acid. While phytic acid does have a few health benefits, it also gets a bad rap as an ‘anti-nutrient’. Phytic acid inhibits the absorption of iron, calcium, and zinc, which can lead to mineral deficiencies. Some naturopaths also suspect that phytic acid can exacerbate Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms such as bloating and gas. Once again, fermentation to the rescue!
Research shows that sourdough that has undergone a long, slow fermentation process ‘pre-digests’ and partially neutralizes phytic acid. Therefore, we can more easily digest the bread – and better absorb the minerals that it contains!
Improved Gut Health & Nutrient Absorption
Thus far, we’ve explored how fermenting sourdough can increase or decrease certain compounds, but how about how our bodies react to them?
To start, if you’re someone who experiences unpleasant side effects from non-fermented bread but have continued to consume it anyway, you’re not doing your body any favors. The bread itself is less nutritious than sourdough, and the constant irritation and inflammation in your bowels can inhibit you from fully absorbing all the nutrients you consume – not just those in the bread!
Like all fermented foods, sourdough promotes general gut health and creates a favorable environment for maximum nutrient metabolism. A healthy gut directly contributes to maintaining a healthy immune system, digestive system, and overall total-body health! During sourdough fermentation, beneficial bacteria and yeast give our gut a jump start and ‘pre-digest’ a lot of compounds, making them more bioavailable to our bodies. Fiber is just one excellent example.
Other Benefits of Sourdough
Let’s review a few more notable reasons why sourdough is healthier than other bread, and then I’ll let you be on your way.
One, it is more sustainable! Making your own sourdough bread at home reduces plastic waste you’d otherwise generate buying bagged bread. It also cuts your food carbon footprint – not having your bread trucked across the country to get to your kitchen.
Two, you have the utmost control over the ingredients. By making your own homemade sourdough, you have the opportunity to use organic*, high-quality, more nutrient-dense flour than what’s used in commercial products. Plus, you’re avoiding all those preservatives and extra ingredients. Homemade sourdough is literally just flour, water, and salt. You can also add other healthy goodies like fresh herbs, garlic, olives, nuts, seeds… whatever you desire!
Finally, making sourdough is rewarding and fun. If you haven’t tried it yet, hear me now: it is NOT as hard as you may imagine. You can totally do this! I’ll admit that some homemade sourdough tutorials can be a bit intimidating, especially if it includes a lot of unfamiliar baker’s jargon. I tried my best to make our sourdough tutorials as straightforward and easy to follow as possible!
*Note: The use of certified organic flour may also further reduce side effects of “gluten-intolerance”, as many individuals may actually be experiencing reactions to the toxic pesticides that are common in GMO non-organic wheat flour – such as Round Up.
Traditionally fermented sourdough is healthier than standard non-fermented bread, for the following reasons:
- Consuming sourdough triggers less of a post-meal blood sugar spike than other bread, which can protect against insulin resistance, weight gain, and diabetes.
- Sourdough contains less gluten than non-fermented bread, and therefore triggers less inflammation, bloating, pain, or other common side effects to gluten-sensitive individuals.
- Increased amino acid concentrations in sourdough contribute to healthy muscles, and help reduce the risk of stroke, cancer, and heart disease.
- Fermented foods promote a healthy gut biome and improved nutrient bioavailability. The reduction of phytic acid (an ‘anti-nutrient’) leads to better mineral and nutrient absorption.
- Homemade sourdough is healthier than store-brought bread because it is more fresh, less processed, contains no artificial additives, and creates less waste. It is also totally delicious, and fun to make!
And that concludes this lesson on why sourdough is healthier than other bread.
All in all, sourdough is pretty darn awesome. I am in love with the process of making it, and my gut isn’t mad about it either. For years I struggled with discomfort after eating bread, even when I tried gluten-free options. Now, we bake and enjoy fresh bread or other sourdough recipes every week or two. It has become something that we really enjoy to do together, and the opportunities to get creative are endless!
What do you say? Did you learn something new? Have you been on the fence about sourdough, but are now feeling excited to try? I hope you enjoyed learning all about why sourdough is healthier than other bread, because I definitely enjoyed writing about it! I also highly recommend the Air episode of Michael Pollen’s ‘Cooked’ series on Netflix. It is a fascinating look at all things fermentation.
Please feel free to ask any questions, and spread the sourdough love by sharing this article! Also, don’t miss these related posts:
- Buy Organic Sourdough Starter (Dry but Alive!)
- How to Make Sourdough Starter From Scratch
- How to Feed, Maintain & Store Your Sourdough Starter
- Simple No-Knead Sourdough Bread Recipe
- Herb Sourdough Discard Crackers
- Simple Sourdough Focaccia Recipe
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- Cast Iron Sourdough Pizza Crust