Is Sourdough Bread Healthy?
For years, bread has been demonized, and said to be the cause of weight gain, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, however, it is important to understand that not all bread is created equal and when you understand how real bread is made, you will understand why. So here is a case for real bread, and why sourdough is the healthiest bread out there.
What is sourdough?
Sourdough is what many would consider real bread. Although there is lots of “bread” sold in grocery stores, very few of them are actually real bread, but rather a processed product that resembles bread. Real bread is made very simply with three ingredients; flour, water, and salt. In the traditional bread-making process, flour and water are combined to create a ‘starter’ that reacts with wild yeast and lactobacilli bacteria present in the air, which is left to slowly ferment. This sourdough starter, or natural leaven, is then used to make the dough rise. The rising alone is a multi-stage process that can take hours, and by the time the loaf goes into the oven, it can be up to three days in the making. The initial sourdough starter is then kept alive through ongoing feedings for the purpose of leavening additional bread dough in an ongoing manner, and it is the actual process of natural leavening with wild yeast that defines a loaf as sourdough.
From the dawn of civilization until the industrial age making dough with wild yeast, or sourdough, was the primary method used to make bread. However, in the late 19th century baker’s yeast was developed and large-scale industrial baking soon flourished. Today, almost all bread sold in the grocery store, no matter if it’s made with wheat flour or gluten-free flour, is baked using yeast. Not only are loaves made with commercial yeast, but most are spiked with additional enzymes, preservatives, vegetable oils, sugar, and other dough improvers. (Just read your bread label if you don’t believe me.) Although these doughs may rise quicker, the quality, taste, and nutritional value are diminished in the process.
Why Sourdough is the Healthiest Bread
On their own, grains are very difficult to digest. Grains contain anti-nutrients, namely phytic acid, which are very difficult for our bodies to break down. Phytic acid inhibits enzymes that are needed for the breakdown of proteins and starch in the stomach, and therefore when they are not properly prepared, grains are very difficult for the human body to break down. Fortunately, a sourdough starter contains friendly lactobacilli, the same bacteria that are present in other fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. The lactic acid-producing probiotics present in the sourdough starter are actually responsible for the breakdown of anti-nutrients like phytic acid in the grains.
Although these probiotic cultures don’t survive the baking process, due to the heat, the fermentation process prior to baking helps to remove anti-nutrients, “pre-digest” the cereal grains, and make the digestion process and absorption of nutrients much easier for our bodies. When grains are not properly prepared, phytic acid molecules bind with other minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, which makes these important nutrients unavailable to us. It is the long, slow fermentation process of sourdough that actually reduces the presence of phytates.
Additionally, given real sourdough is made of only 3 ingredients (flour, water, and salt), by choosing sourdough over commercial bread you eliminate the concern of food additives, vegetable oils, added sugars, and preservatives in the diet which can be very damaged to our health, namely our gut health.
The Bottom Line
As with any food, determining if a food is “good” or “bad” always comes down to the quality of the food itself. Is commercial bread good for you? Probably not. Can sourdough be included in a healthy diet? Most likely. Buying sourdough bread from an artisan baker or a farmer’s market increases the likelihood of it being real sourdough bread, as some store-bought versions are not made by the traditional sourdough method and therefore don’t have the same benefits. A real sourdough loaf should only contain a combination of flour, water, salt, and a starter. Ask questions, read the ingredients, and if you are feeling extra adventurous, give a hand at making your own sourdough at home.