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For many people who have to switch to a gluten-free diet, saying good-bye to bread is like parting ways with an old friend.
Various gluten-free breads are available, but due to their taste and texture differences, most don’t fill the void (
Sourdough breads have been touted as a safe option for those who avoid gluten. Many claim that the gluten in wheat sourdough or rye bread is broken down and easier to digest than conventionally produced bread.
This article examines whether sourdough is a good option if you’re on a gluten-free diet.
Gluten is the name for a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. It causes damage to the intestinal lining in those with celiac disease, so it’s essential to avoid all sources of gluten if you have this condition (
Those with a gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy should also avoid gluten and wheat-containing foods.
The main ingredient in sourdough bread is usually wheat flour — which contains gluten.
While one lab analysis of the gluten in wheat sourdough bread has shown that it has less gluten than other types of wheat bread, the amount can vary (
This means there may still be unsafe levels of gluten in regular wheat sourdough bread.
However, gluten-free sourdough varieties, which are made from gluten-free flours like rice, sorghum, or teff, are available (3).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all products that are labeled gluten-free to have a gluten content below 20 parts per million (ppm) (
If your sourdough bread contains wheat, rye, or barley, it also contains gluten. If you have to follow a strict gluten-free diet, only purchase sourdough bread made from gluten-free grains.
Sourdough and regular bread are leavened differently.
While regular bread is leavened with packaged yeast, sourdough bread is leavened with Lactobacillus bacteria and wild yeasts.
This mixture of bacteria and wild yeast is called a sourdough starter. It’s made by mixing flour and water and letting it sit until microbes move in and ferment it.
During fermentation, these organisms digest the starches in the dough and produce lactic acid and carbon dioxide (
Fermentation gives sourdough its distinctive sour flavor and light, airy texture.
Gluten content might be lower
As the bacteria and yeast ferment the starches, they degrade some of the gluten (
The idea that sourdough bread is safe for those with celiac disease stems from the results of a few small, controlled studies that found that eating sourdough didn’t cause symptoms or intestinal changes in those with this condition (
In one study, 13 people with celiac disease on a gluten-free diet ate either regular wheat bread, sourdough that was fermented so that part of the gluten was degraded, or sourdough that contained only 8 ppm of residual gluten (
After 60 days, the group eating the sourdough that contained 8 ppm of gluten reported no negative symptoms and showed no negative effects in their blood work or intestinal biopsies, while the other two groups reacted to the gluten (
It’s important to note that the low-gluten sourdough bread was produced under controlled conditions in a lab — not a home or food manufacturing kitchen.
Easier to digest?
The internet is full of reports from people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity who claim that they don’t experience digestive symptoms after eating sourdough bread.
This may be because some of the proteins, starches, and inflammatory compounds in wheat-based products are easier to digest when they’re fermented.
However, at this time, these claims aren’t backed by science.
What’s more, other compounds in the bread may cause issues for some people.
For example, alpha-amylase/trypsin inhibitors (ATIs) have been identified in gluten-containing products and appear to increase intestinal inflammation (
Plus, carbs known as fermentable, oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols (FODMAPs) occur in grain- and gluten-containing products. They’re associated with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
In a study in 26 people who followed a gluten-free diet for IBS, sourdough bread that had been fermented for more than 12 hours and showed lower levels of both ATIs and FODMAPs was not any better tolerated than regular bread (
Thus, the digestibility of sourdough bread may depend on the individual and various factors.
The fermentation process used to make sourdough bread breaks down some of the gluten and inflammatory compounds in wheat. However, it still contains some gluten, and no scientific evidence suggests that it’s easier to digest.
There are several brands of ready-made gluten-free sourdough bread on the market.
The fermentation process improves the taste, texture, and shelf life of gluten-free bread, so you may find that you prefer gluten-free sourdough over regular gluten-free bread (
The following sourdough brands are either certified gluten-free or use only certified gluten-free ingredients:
- Bread SRSLY
- Simple Kneads
- New Grains
- Cook’s Gluten-Free Sourdough
Other brands may be suitable as well. Just be sure to read the label carefully before you buy one. You can also scout your neighborhood for a bakery that specializes in gluten-free products.
Bake it yourself
If you want that fresh-from-the-oven taste and texture, consider baking your own gluten-free sourdough bread.
The easiest way to make it is to purchase a gluten-free starter, such as the one from Cultures For Health.
First, activate the starter, which takes about seven days. Here are the steps to follow:
- In a jar or bowl, mix the starter with about 1/4 cup (30 grams) of gluten-free flour and 1/4 cup (60 ml) of warm water.
- Cover the bowl and let it rest overnight at room temperature.
- The next day, add another 1/4 cup (30 grams) of gluten-free flour and 1/4 cup (60 ml) of warm water and mix well.
- Cover and let it rest again overnight at room temperature.
- For the next several days, discard part of the starter and feed it more flour and water every 12 hours. For the exact ratio, follow the instructions on your starter kit.
- When your starter is bubbly and doubles in size within about four hours, don’t discard any more. Instead, feed it two more times and then bake it or keep it in your refrigerator.
- If you continue to feed it more flour and water weekly, it will keep indefinitely.
To make gluten-free sourdough bread, combine the amount of starter your recipe calls for with additional gluten-free flour, water, and salt, and let it ferment and then rise for up to 24 hours. Then bake as directed.
You can buy gluten-free sourdough bread or bake it yourself. It takes about a week to activate a sourdough starter, but once you have it, it’ll last indefinitely as long as you keep feeding it and store it in your refrigerator.
Wheat sourdough bread may contain less gluten than regular yeast bread, but it’s not gluten-free.
If you’re on a gluten-free diet for celiac disease, regular sourdough bread isn’t safe.
Instead, buy sourdough bread made with gluten-free grains or invest a few days and activate your own gluten-free sourdough starter.
This way, you never have to miss a good loaf of bread again.