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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 probiotics, such as 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 gut health and help the body better absorb nutrients from the food we eat. On top of that, sourdough bread is easier for one to digest as the fermentation process helps to break down the food into easily digestible bits.
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If you’re reading this article, you may be wondering if sourdough bread is gluten free and safe for someone with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity to eat?
The short answer is no, sourdough bread is not gluten free. However, the long answer is maybe. I’ll explain below.
How Sourdough Bread is Made
For thousands of years, bread production relied on the use of a sourdough starter as the leavening agent vs. a store-bought yeast. A newbie sourdough starter is created in five or more days, and requires you to feed the starter with flour and water daily. You can even buy aged starters, which are known to have more flavor and richness.
It’s only in the past 150 years, with the advent of baker’s yeast as a leavening agent, that bakers abandoned this traditional slow-baking process. In fact, the use of a sourdough starter, which is a biological leavening agent, is near extinct in a world where bread is baked fast and cheap.
Why Do Some Think Sourdough is Gluten Free Then?
Many people think sourdough bread is okay for someone on a gluten-free diet to eat because they say the lactobacillus in sourdough breaks down the gluten into small enough bits that may be tolerated by someone who cannot normally tolerate gluten.
This is dangerous thinking, and you cannot assume that sourdough bread made by today’s bakers with today’s wheat flour is gluten free by any stretch of the imagination.
Related Article: The Benefits of Probiotics
A 2010 study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology wanted to understand if people who could not eat gluten could tolerate sourdough bread. This study, mind you, created a lot of confusion and misinformation within the gluten-free community.
In the 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” (aka, damage to the small intestine consistent with celiac disease).
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’ conclusions sound awesome if you eat gluten free, there are a few flaws to be aware of when applying these practices to REAL life.
First, you must remember that the process of getting fully hydrolyzed wheat flour is very hard to find. 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 as their 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?
Related Reading: How to Make Gluten-Free Challah
Third, this study only followed sixteen patients with celiac disease for 60 days, and only five of them consumed the sourdough bread that contained 8 ppm of gluten. Take the small sample size and short timeframe used in this study 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 readily-available consumer technology available that will indicate how many parts per million gluten is found in a food, except maybe the Nima Sensor, which would tell you if it contained any gluten.
BOTTOM LINE: Eating sourdough bread when you have celiac disease is much too risky to do. Don’t do it.
Does a Gluten-Free Sourdough Bread Exist?
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, and I’ve since traded sourdough bread bowls for good health. I think I made out better in the end, don’t you?
However, the good news is you can still enjoy sourdough bread if you eat one made with gluten-free flours.
You can buy gluten-free sourdough bread and have it shipped right to your doorstep thanks to Bread Srsly. This bakery makes 100 percent gluten-free sourdough bread using gluten-free flours only.
I’ve sampled Bread Srsly gluten-free sourdough bread and it tastes like legit sourdough and is so good. Be still my gluten-free heart! And best of all, use my coupon code – goodforyou10 – to get 10 percent off your order. Sweet!
If you’re really motivated, you can make your own gluten-free sourdough starter at home with brown rice flour and water. It’ll take you a week to make a gluten-free sourdough starter, but once you have it, you can use it as a natural leavener in your own bread or other baked goods. It will give anything you bake a tangy sourdough flavor.
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 xanthan 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 have a better understanding of why you should not eat commercially made sourdough bread and how you can safely enjoy gluten-free sourdough bread again.