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Justine Hays is a Registered Dietitian and as such, is trained in putting nutrition science concepts into practical lifestyle changes. Opinions are only those of the author. 

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  • Justine Hays

Sourdough-a recipe for better bread and better health


Sourdough starters have been trending all over the internet. Just check out the hashtags #quarantinystarter or #sourdoughstarter or try to buy bread flour at any grocery store - good luck!


With sourdough being all the rage right now, I’ve been wondering about the health benefits about naturally fermented breads. Let’s break down the basics:


What is sourdough?


Sourdough is a type of bread leaven based on fermentation. Sourdough is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, type of fermentation. Sourdough traditionally relies on flour and water mixed together, then the mixture “catches” the wild yeasts and bacteria present in the air and in the flour. The bacteria produce lactic acid which helps the mixture ferment and, when in the presence of flour, can help dough rise. Wild yeasts are naturally more resistant to acidic environments which make them able to tolerate the lactic acid rich environment produced by the naturally occurring bacteria. The flour, water, yeast mixture is often called a “starter.”


Are sourdough breads and baked goods more nutritious than other bread and baked goods?


This answer isn’t so cut and dry. It all depends on the other ingredients used in the bread or baked goods. For simplicity's sake, we will compare breads but you can apply the same principles to, say, waffles or pretzels. It's also important to remember portion sizes still matter. A typical slice of bread is equal to about one serving of grains. It is recommended to eat about 5-6 servings of grains throughout the day, at least half of which are whole grains.


Bread is only as good as the flours you use. If you use whole grain flours, you will be making a whole grain bread. Whole grain bread is always a more nutritious choice than standard refine grain breads. Whole grains are always a great source of nutrients and contain more fiber than the refined or enriched grain counterparts. Sourdough fermentation can increase the palatability of some whole grain breads, increasing tenderness, improving structure, and flavor. Sourdough, when made with whole grains, is a rich source of vitamin E, B vitamins, fiber, and potassium. Additionally, sourdough fermentation of rye flour can help make folate more available for your body to absorb, increasing bio-availability.


Sourdough breads, when created from a true sourdough starter and not using a dry active yeast method of leavening, have a lower pH than most other breads. A lower pH in bread will mean reduced phytates. What’s a phytate? A phytate is something that competes with nutrients for absorption sites in the body. Consuming a food rich in phytates will mean your body will absorb less of the other vitamins and minerals present. In this way, sourdough fermentation and bread products may be more beneficial for greater mineral absorption.


Another potential benefit of sourdough consumption is the possibility of increased antioxidant production by the sourdough starter. In a study from 2012, certain grains were studied for their lactic acid bacteria during fermentation. The study found lactic acid producing bacteria have the ability to produce antioxidant peptides during fermentation of certain grains. The grains that saw the greatest output of antioxidant peptides were whole wheat, rye, spelt, and kamut. These antioxidants have a variety of uses in commercial food preparation and human health benefits. Antioxidants can help prevent food spoilage and browning in commercial preparation. In human health, antioxidants are known for catching and destroying free radicals in the body. They are known for anti-carcinogenic effects and may help prevent other chronic diseases such as heart disease.


Is it easier to digest?


Many people have cited the digestibility of sourdough breads. One study from 2006 suggests that sourdough fermentation may be akin to predigesting some proteins that cause wheat or rye allergies. This could explain why some people feel sourdough breads may be easier for them to digest. The study suggested sourdough fermentation was able to degrade gluten more effectively than traditional bakers yeast. Please note - it does not degrade all gluten and is not a gluten free food unless made with gluten free flours. Sourdough bread’s lower gluten content makes it more digestible for people who have a mild gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Sourdough starters can still be made with gluten free flours and gluten intolerant individuals can still consume sourdough bread made with gluten free flours.


In addition to possibly being easier to digest, it has been observed that sourdough breads raise blood sugar less than their white wheat bread counterpart. This lowering of postprandial (after meal) glucose and insulin response was observed in healthy individuals. It is believed that the lactic acid fermentation reduces the rate of starch digestion by creating more interaction between gluten and starch.


Sourdough bread and baked products can have a wonderful aroma and flavor, as well as a pleasing texture. Some individuals may find them easier to digest. Sourdough bread products are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. So if you’re going to experiment with bread baking, why not give sourdough a try? Here are some resources I've found to be helpful: Feasting at Home Simple Sourdough Starter and Cooks Illustrated Quarantine Starter And if bread baking isn’t for you but bread eating is - try supporting a local bakery and ask if they have any traditional sourdough loaves.

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