Photo by Nadya Spetnitskaya
Sourdough bread is one of the first types of breads ever made. For thousands of years, the process of making sourdough bread was the only way people could enjoy leavened bread. At its most basic level, sourdough is a mixture of flour and water that’s left out to naturally ferment in the air.
When sourdough is left to naturally ferment, it absorbs yeast and lactic acid from the air. This process allows the sourdough bread to rise, and this method of creating leavened bread is much healthier than industrial processes used for more refined varieties of bread.
This is because many breads we find in the supermarket are made with commercial baker’s yeast. Commercial baker’s yeast, which was first developed around a century ago, transformed the way we make and consume bread. The development of commercial yeast meant that bread could be injected with the components to make it rise without the lengthy process of natural air fermentation. As such, the creation of bread became more of an assembly line process as opposed to something made in the home.
For this reason, many consumers nowadays have pretty much no idea what actually goes into the bread they eat. They put it on the grocery list, and pick up a loaf depending on their personal preferences. They might be influenced by price, taste, appearance, or marketing. But store bought bread can be problematic for many people, particularly those who suffer from food allergies.
With regards to bread, the top food allergy you have to be careful with is gluten intolerance. This particular intolerance is also known as coeliac or celiac disease. The traditional English spelling is ‘coeliac’, and the American English spelling is ‘celiac’. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects an estimated 1 out of every 100 people worldwide. It it thought that up to 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed celiacs.
When a celiac ingests gluten, it causes damage to their small intestine. Despite its name, the small intestine is actually the longest part of the gastrointestinal tract. After food leaves the stomach, the small intestine helps the body to ingest nutrients and continues the digestion process. The entire digestive system works together in order to convert the food you eat into energy that can be used effectively. A problem with the small intestine, therefore, can have serious consequences for overall digestion.
When a celiac eats most breads, therefore, their body responds as if the gluten is an intruder. For whatever reason, the body of a celiac perceives gluten as an invasive presence that shouldn’t be there. Thus, the body literally attacks itself by mounting an immune response. It targets this immune response at the small intestine. The small intestine has a lining made up of villi. These villi are designed to absorb nutrients. When a celiac eats gluten, the body attacks the villi, thereby inhibiting nutrient absorption in the body. If the body cannot absorb nutrients properly, the health of the person will decline over time, and the role of the nutrients in question cannot be carried out to full effect.
Thus, generally speaking, celiacs avoid breads of all kinds. Now what does this have to do with sourdough bread? Let’s find out:
Sourdough Bread and Celiac Disease
Sourdough is one of the few breads that may be suitable for a celiac to eat. This is because the natural fermentation process of traditional sourdough bread partially breaks down the gluten in the flour. It doesn’t break down all of the gluten, but the gluten seems to be present in such small amounts that it will not trigger the same autoimmune response in the body. Now, before you go out and buy sourdough bread, it’s important to know that it is not technically a gluten-free product. You might find that as a celiac, it still doesn’t digest well in your body. Alternatively, you might find that you can eat it safely. The best way to find out is to try a small sample and see how your body reacts. As a celiac, you will know the response your body usually has to gluten. If it seems okay, that’s great. However, sourdough is not a miracle bread for all celiacs. Some celiacs can eat it without any negative consequences; some can’t. Still, sourdough bread is a much more viable option for celiacs than other, more refined forms of bread.
Sourcing Sourdough Bread
The way you make or the place you buy your sourdough bread is important. Artisan bakeries or making sourdough bread at home is a safer option than buying many store brands of sourdough. This is because many store bought versions use commercial baker’s yeast to trigger the fermentation process. It is this refinement of the sourdough bread that makes it, for want of a better word, a fake version. If you make it at home, or visit a traditional bakery, it is more likely that the fermentation will be a natural process. Since it is this process that partially breaks down the gluten in the flour, sourdough will only be suitable for a celiac if it is made in this manner. Therefore, always ask questions about how the sourdough is made, no matter where you buy it.
Author: Gillian Rixey