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Sourdough bread has been lauded in health circles as a healthier bread option for years. That’s because sourdough bread is made by the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast. Lactobacilli is gut-friendly bacteria (it is also found in probiotics) and gives sourdough its tart flavor. Probiotics have been known to support your gut health and help your body better absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. Plus, sourdough is easier for your body to digest as the fermentation process has already broken down the food into more digestible bits.
So you may be wondering, “Is sourdough bread gluten-free?” and safe for someone with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity?
The short answer is no, it’s not safe. The long answer is maybe. Let me explain below.
In today’s era of making things as cheap and fast as possible, it’s likely that “sourdough” bread you see on store shelves was made in a matter of minutes, maybe hours, not the normal days and weeks it takes to make a true fermented sourdough bread. This means it still contains too much gluten in it to be safe for you to eat.
For thousands of years, bread production relied on the use of a sourdough starter as the leavening agent. It’s only in the past 150 years, with the advent of baker’s yeast as a leavening agent, that bakers abandoned this traditional baking process. In fact, the use of food-grade sourdough lactobacilli (which is a biological leavening agent) and practice of extended fermentation of wheat flour are near extinct. These traditional processes of making bread was replaced with fast-acting chemicals and/or baker’s yeast leavening agents.
Why do people think sourdough is gluten-free?
Many people think sourdough bread is okay for someone on a gluten-free diet because of a 2010 study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. This study created a lot of confusion and misinformation.
In this study, researchers randomly assigned sixteen celiac disease patients (ages 12–23 years old) into one of three groups for 60 days. All patients were in good health and had been following a gluten-free diet for at least five years.
Group 1: The first group was assigned to consume 200 grams per day of natural flour baked goods containing between 80-127 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
Group 2: The second group was assigned to consume “extensively hydrolyzed flour baked goods,” which contained 2480 ppm residual gluten.
Group 3: The third group was assigned to consume “fully hydrolyzed baked goods” that contained eight ppm residual gluten.
Two of the six patients in Group 1 (the ones who consumed 200 grams per day or 80-127 ppm of gluten) had to discontinue the challenge because of symptoms (aka, the gluten was making them sick!). The patients in this group all had increased levels of anti–tissue transglutaminase (tTG) antibodies and small bowel deterioration.
Two patients in Group 2 (the ones who ate the “extensively hydrolyzed flour baked goods” at 2480 ppm residual gluten) had no clinical complaints but developed “subtotal atrophy.”
The five patients in Group 3 (the ones who ate the “fully hydrolyzed baked goods”) had no clinical complaints, their levels of anti-tTG antibodies did not increase, and their small intestinal mucosa was unchanged.
This led researchers to conclude 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 celiac disease.”
STOP – don’t take these results at face value!
While the researchers’ conclusion sounds all good and nice, there are a few flaws to be aware of when applying these practices to your own life.
First, you must remember that the process of getting fully hydrolyzed wheat flour manufacturer with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases is very hard to find if not non-existent! Almost all bread you find in bakeries and grocery stores are NOT made this way and instead use fast-acting chemicals and/or baker’s yeast leavening agents.
Second, you might be wondering if you could make your own sourdough bread with wheat flour at home. Sure, you could. However, the formulation used in the study is complex and one that would be quite difficult to replicate at home. Plus, why introduce wheat flour into your kitchen when you’ve worked so hard to get the gluten out of your kitchen AND life?
Third, this study only followed sixteen patients with celiac disease for 60 days, and only five of them consumed the sourdough bread that contains 8 ppm of gluten. Take the results of a study with such a small sample size and small timeframe with a huge grain of salt.
Forth, if you were to make your own sourdough bread using wheat flour, how would you know if it contained less than 10 ppm of gluten (or even less than 20 ppm, the amount the FDA says someone with celiac disease can tolerate)? I don’t know of any consumer technology available that will indicate how many parts per million gluten is found in a food. The Nima Sensor can test food for gluten, but it will only report back to you if ANY gluten is found. It does not indicate how much (or how many ppm) gluten a product contains. (Learn more about the Nima Sensor.)
BOTTOM LINE: The answer to the question, “Is sourdough bread gluten-free?” is no. In fact, eating sourdough bread is RISKY for someone who cannot eat gluten. Don’t do it. Not worth it.
But what if I still want sourdough bread?
I feel your pain.
I used to love sourdough bread too. I used to go to Panera all the time just to enjoy French onion soup inside of a delicious sourdough bread bowl. Ah, the memories. Unfortunately, those days are in my past. I’ve since traded sourdough bread bowls for good health. I think I made out better in the end, don’t ya think?
But what if you still want to enjoy sourdough bread?
Good news – I have two suggestions for you:
First, you can buy gluten-free sourdough bread. I’m serious. Bread Srsly makes it. I’ve sampled it and it tastes like legit sourdough. I’m not much of a bread person, but if you love sourdough, this is a great option. (Buy Bread Srsly gluten-free sourdough here.)
Second, you can make your own gluten-free sourdough bread at home WITHOUT wheat flour. Yep, you can make sourdough bread with a rice flour.
In order to make your own sourdough bread, you need to make your own sourdough starter using filtered water and brown rice flour. It’ll take you a week to make a basic starter, but once you have it, you can use it as a natural leavener in your own bread or other baked goods too. It will give anything you bake a tangy flour congruent to the sourdough flavor you know.
To make your own sourdough starter, follow the instructions as outlined in Experience Life Magazine.
Gluten-Free Sourdough Bread Recipe
- 1/2 cup millet flour
- 1/2 cup sorghum flour
- 1/2 cup arrowroot starch
- 1/2 cup white rice flour
- 1 1½ tsp kosher salt
- 2 tsp xanthum gum
- 1/2 cup sourdough starter
- ½-1 cup water, as needed
- In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients.
- Mix in sourdough starter, then add enough water so that the dough resembles pancake batter. Stir to combine.
- Let the dough rise for 12-24 hours at room temperature.
- Bake at 375 in a greased loaf pan until the top is golden brown, about 1 hour.
- Cool completely before slicing.
I hope you enjoyed my post titled, “Is sourdough bread gluten-free?” and now have a better understanding of why you should NOT eat commercially made sourdough bread.
If you want to enjoy sourdough bread again, either make your own, or simply splurge and buy some Bread Srsly, which can be delivered straight to your doorstep within the week.
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