Sourdough bread not only tastes good, it’s good for you! Sourdough is more digestible than other kinds of bread…plus healthy bacteria in the bread boost immunity and your feel-good hormones. There are even claims that wheat-flour sourdough is safe for people who can’t eat gluten. While that’s not true, being gluten-free doesn’t mean having to be sourdough-free.

What’s So Healthy About Traditional Sourdough?

The sourdough method for making bread has been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Sourdough is a method for making bread rise, a process called leavening, using only naturally occurring “wild yeast” that is already present in flour and the surrounding air instead of using packaged yeast as is used for other leavened breads. Wild yeast cultivated in flour, such as wheat or rye, and water takes several days or a week to ferment and develop. And making bread with this kind of yeast involves a longer proving process—when the dough rises and develops—than with packaged yeast.

It is this lengthy fermenting and proving that gives sourdough its healthy edge over other kinds of bread.

Improved digestibility: Phytic acid in wheat, rye and other flours used to make bread—including gluten-free flours—inhibits stomach enzymes needed to break down proteins and starch and causes digestive discomfort and bloating for some people. While an enzyme that breaks down phytic acid called phytase is released during the making of any yeast-leavened bread, sourdough’s longer fermentation time gives the yeast more time to break down phytic acid…helping to make grain’s micronutrients more easily absorbed in the gut.

Probiotic edge: Healthy bacteria called Lactobacillus reuteri that grow during sourdough fermentation have been shown in laboratory studies to improve immunity, slow weight gain, speed wound healing and even stimulate the brain to release the “feel good” hormone oxytocin.

Celiac vs. Sourdough

Certain laboratory studies may have led to the mistaken belief that sourdough will not cause problems for people who are gluten sensitive. However, while the gluten content may be reduced in sourdough breads compared with other wheat and rye breads, it’s still too high for people who need to be gluten-free for celiac disease or other health reasons. The FDA requires foods labeled gluten-free to contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. The Gluten Free Watchdog, which independently tests labeled gluten-free products for gluten contamination, tested three sourdough wheat breads made by artisanal bakeries and found the gluten content could be upwards of 100,000 ppm.

Safe Sourdough!

The good news is that it’s easy—and fun!—to make sourdough with flours that do not contain gluten, such as flours made from brown rice, buckwheat, teff, quinoa and sorghum.

Start by searching “gluten free sourdough starter” on the web. While specific directions vary, any sourdough starter is made by stirring together flour and water in a glass jar or ceramic bowl and allowing it to ferment. Once it becomes bubbly, has doubled in volume and smells pleasantly sour, it’s ready use—to make bread, pancakes, waffles or whatever your culinary creativity thinks up! You need to refrigerate unused starter…“feed” it once a week or so with additional flour and water…and replace any amount used with an equal amount of flour-and-water mixture.

The process takes some patience and nurturing, but your efforts will be well rewarded!