Gluten Intolerance & Sourdough Bread

If you're intolerant to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, you know how hard it is to find a good-tasting bread. Most gluten-free breads are dense, dry and expensive. But wheat bread may be making a comeback for the gluten-intolerant thanks to new research on sourdough. It turns out this old-fashioned baking technique may help break down gluten in wheat. Sourdough is not only good for baking but may also help heal the gut in those newly diagnosed with celiac disease.

A close-up of sourdough with raisins. (Image: StudioZwartlicht/iStock/Getty Images)

What Is Sourdough

Sourdough starts simply as a mixture of flour and water. When you mix the two together, amylase, an enzyme in the flour, begins to break down the starch molecules into sugar. Wild yeast, which is naturally found in flour and the leavening agent, and friendly bacteria from the air begin to feed off the sugar. The mixture is allowed to sit and ferment, usually about a week, until it's bubbly and frothy and smells like vinegar. Then it is ready to be mixed with flour and baked into bread.

Sourdough and Wheat Bread

Lactobacilli, the friendly bacteria in the sourdough, not only feeds off the sugar from the flour, but it may also decrease the amount of gluten in wheat bread. Research is in its early stages, and scientists are experimenting with varying amounts and types of bacteria, as well as fungi, to create a gluten-free wheat bread for people with gluten intolerance. So far, the only practical use for these experiments is in preventing cross-contamination with other gluten-free foods.

Good for Your Gut

When people with gluten intolerance eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by attacking and damaging the villi in the small intestines, which affects absorption of nutrients. Once you omit gluten from your diet, your gut begins to heal, but it takes time. A 2012 study published in the "European Journal of Nutrition" found that gluten-free sourdough bread may enhance the healing process during those early days of the disease. The researchers suggest that gluten-free sourdough bread may be helpful in the early stages of recovery for the newly diagnosed.

Make Your Own Gluten-Free Sourdough

If you like to bake, you can make your own gluten-free sourdough. Rice, corn or gluten-free amaranth flour make good choices to create your sourdough starter. Like a traditional wheat flour starter, you mix the gluten-free flour with water and let it sit for a week to ferment, which is important for the healing properties, until it becomes bubbly and frothy. Once it's ready, you can use it to bake your own gluten-free sourdough bread.

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