Sourdough and gluten intolerance

Posted by in Latest Blog Posts on May 26, 2014 . .

 a clarification from Andrew Whitley

On May 14th the Times Scotland reported (paywall) the launch of my new book DO SOURDOUGH – Slow bread for busy lives. In my talk at the launch at Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery on May 7th, I had listed some of the many benefits of bread made with long fermentation and the active functioning of lactic acid bacteria – sourdough, for short. I mentioned studies showing how the gluten proteins that trigger conditions such as coeliac disease can be broken down by sourdough fermentation.

I also pointed out that not all bread sold as 'sourdough' is the real thing. In-store bakeries are now selling loaves that are little more than standard bread with a bit of dried sourdough powder added. If they are not fermented properly such loaves will not bring the digestive benefits that many people have discovered when they have tried sourdough bread made by a committed Real Bread baker.

The Times article, which was repeated almost verbatim in the Mail, correctly reported my warning that, although the research into sourdough looks promising, it should not be assumed that people with coeliac disease can eat sourdough bread with impunity.  However, it conflated this statement with my observations about the recent appearance of 'bogus' sourdough loaves in in-store bakeries.

So, just to be clear, this is my position on sourdough bread and gluten intolerance:

1. Extended fermentation with sourdough lactic acid bacteria can break down some or all of the proteins in bread dough that are toxic to people with coeliac disease and related gluten intolerance. 

2. Many consumers have sought and found relief from symptoms such as 'bloating' and other gastro-intestinal complaints by switching from industrial loaves to properly fermented sourdough bread. While part of the benefit delivered by such a change may be due to the avoidance of the synthetic additives and industrial enzymes used in almost all commercial bread, research suggests an important role for sourdough bacteria and extended fermentation time in making bread more digestible.

3. More research is needed to elucidate such mechanisms and to help bakers ferment their bread in the best possible way. I have invited the National Association of British and Irish Millers (which, together with the Federation of Bakers, represents the vast majority of the industrial bread supply chain in the UK) to contribute towards such research by supporting a study designed by gastro-enterologists and allergy specialists at a leading UK university. So far, they have declined, choosing instead to publish defensive 'research' denying any role for industrial bread in the ongoing rise of inflammatory bowel disease and other digestive complaints.

4. We urgently need an 'Honest Crust Act' to ensure that people can know what goes into the bread they buy and how it is made. Such an Act would define sourdough as bread, all of whose ingredients had been fermented with typical lactic acid bacteria for long enough for definite changes in the dough to take place. Rapidly-made, additive-based bread with small inclusions of dried 'sourdough', could not legally be called 'sourdough bread'. This is essential to avoid the inevitable public confusion about what sourdough is and what benefits it may be expected to bring. Already, there are reports of people who have experienced digestive relief from sourdough bread getting an unexpected and unpleasant reaction after eating a loaf labelled as 'sourdough' from a supermarket in-store bakery or similar outlet.

Of course, the best protection against unwanted surprises in your daily bread is to make your own, preferably with sourdough. The next Bread Matters course on sourdough baking is on September 6 and 7. To get started with the right stuff, read DO SOURDOUGH or get a real sourdough starter culture that will last you a good lifetime.

Last update: May 26, 2014
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