Sourdough. It's fermented and trendy but is it any easier to digest than regular bread?

I’m one of those people who suffers if he eats too much bread. But abdominal aches and a bloated man belly aren’t enough to keep this idiot away from the local bakeries where I sip flat whites lovingly prepared by people named Alejandro and drool over ‘naturally leavened’ loaves. All whilst pretending to work.

To avoid the monotonous tapping of my keyboard I grab a flimsy menu and peruse the breakfast offerings which include all the prerequisites for the discerning ‘young professionals’ of Jericho; organic, locally sourced eggs from well-to-do chickens with a first from Oxford, perfectly ripe avocados – ‘smashed’ not mashed and of course the infamous ‘naturally leavened’ sourdough bread.

“Our bread is made using traditional methods” the blurb decrees, “and is easier to digest than other breads”. Really?

It’s almost taken for granted that sourdough bread is the solution to all the world’s problems and indeed to be seen eating something as vulgar as a fluffy white baguette risks your ignominious conversion from bread-lover to social pariah. But is sourdough really any easier to digest than regular bread?


First up, a quick note on what sourdough actually is.

You’ve no doubt seen and eaten it by now, sourdough is what everybody’s happily brandishing as ‘naturally leavened’ bread. What that really means is that it relies on the very ancient and very slow fermentation process of wild yeasts and probiotic bacteria to produce lactic acid which makes the dough rise. By comparison, modern breads tend to use the more convenient and quicker acting dried baker’s yeast.

Cheery, yet unsubstantiated claims on the back of menus are nothing new when you’ve got merchandise to shift so I was dubious as to whether the ‘easier to digest’ bit would stand up. Turns out there may just be something to it. I know! Shocked!

It turns out sourdough breads may be easier to digest for a couple of reasons. First, those ‘friendly’ probiotic bacteria are involved in the process and whilst the helpful little buggers don’t survive the cooking process, their actions before the dough is baked may provide a more readily-available source of food (prebiotics) for the friendly bacteria already living in your gut which may make for, you’ve guessed it, better digestion. [1]

Then there’s gluten; the supposedly pesky proteins likely to bring about the downfall of mankind. Sourdough fermentation helps to degrade or break-down gluten meaning there’s less of it in your bread to upset your digestion if you’re sensitive to it. [2] [3]  This is probably why some people claim they feel pants when they eat supermarket, or ‘cheap’ bread but better when they eat sourdough. So to that extent, yes, sourdough bread is easier to digest…for some people.


Sourdough for everyone…?

The logic behind sourdough being more digestible makes sense but of the studies I found, most were very small scale and ‘easier to digest’ is a bit of a subjective term. In some cases researchers found that while sourdough bread had less gluten, less FODMAP’s (fermentable carbs that often cause problems for people with IBS) and more nutritional value, people sensitive to gluten still felt pretty rubbish when eating it. Bummer! [4] It may be a more digestible bread for some, but definitely not for everyone.


What about coeliacs?

If you’re a coeliac and reading this with giddy excitement I’m really, REALLY sorry to be the harbinger of bready doom. While the sourdough process reduces the amount of gluten in the finished loaf it doesn’t get rid of it all, meaning there’s still enough left to do damage and make you feel crappy. The good news is that a lot of gluten free bread manufacturers are now starting to experiment with non-wheat sourdough recipes and while they may not be the aerated, crusty loaves of the wheat varieties, they are getting better all the time. There is hope!


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