The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Gluten-free bread vs. Sourdough method for digestibility

SimplicityRebel's picture

Gluten-free bread vs. Sourdough method for digestibility

I am new to the forums here, so thank you for the opportunity to pose a question to the more experienced bakers out there! Or even less experienced bakers who have this particular expertise!

I have been researching the differences between "added yeast" breads and traditionally risen sourdough breads from the standpoint of digestibility. Then along comes the idea of breads that are gluten-free, as gluten has seemed to be rather villainized recently. With my background in holistic health, this has created quite a conundrum for me!

I do understand that there is the real possibility of individuals being truly allergic to grain gluten, though it seems this would be a somewhat rare occurrance rather than the almost popular malady we see today. This led me to the question of whether it is not the gluten itself, but the entire process of bread baking that has caused such a rise in digestive issues related to bread, as we have turned almost entirely in recent years to the quicker-rise method of simply adding yeast to dough to make it rise. Perhaps the long fermentation of sourdough is what protected us from gluten sensitivity problems and made whole grain, slow rise breads a very digestible food?

So then I come to the question of whether it is worth the trial and error of developing more gluten-free bread recipes (I have concocted several of my own originals), or whether I should shift focus to more sourdough versions, artisan slow-rise breads? I am aware that though gluten-free flour combinations are geared to avoid gluten, these combinations often use other types of flour used that can be equally difficult to digest for various reasons. For example, bean flours are very common as are sorghum flours, both of which can be a bit tough on the gut even in folks with no noted digestive problems. So avoiding gluten comes with a tradeoff that must be considered.

So, here is my puzzlement! Is anyone else working through the same questions or have you already come to any helpful conclusions? I would greatly appreciate any input you might be willing to offer.

Thanks so much!        

Lorrie in Seattle, WA

Danni3ll3's picture

to the gluten. I gave one of my loaves to one of them and although she didn't react as quickly as she usually does, eventually she did have a reaction a few hours later. 

The other friend experiences the same thing. So in those two cases anyhow, gluten is the culprit. And they are not Celiac. 

dosco's picture

The Cleveland Clinic published a piece recently discussing recent work that shows people can be sensitive to gluten/wheat but not be celiac.

My wife is sensitive to wheat, but is not celiac.

If I remember I will post the URL.



Ambimom's picture

As someone who has been a sourdough bread, pizza dough, pita bread baker exclusively for over 10 years now I'm sort of wary of this question.  The whole gluten-free thing reminds me of the whole oat bran thing of 20 years ago.  Celiac disease is a serious, life-changing medical condition.  It's no joke and must be addressed.  I doubt that sourdough is appropriate for celiac sufferers.  As for gluten-sensitivity, that too is a medical condition that should be diagnosed appropriately.   There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten, sourdough or yeast as long as your digestion is not affected.  If you get bloated, have diarrhea, after eating bread or grain, get yourself medically tested for gluten sensitivity.  That's the only reason to ban gluten from anyone's diet.  However, I've known people who have become gluten-free to lose weight, get their nails to grow, and a lot of other nonsensical reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with gluten sensitivity. 

hanseata's picture

Italian/Swedish baker Barbara Elisi's blog "Bread and Companatico" has a series of well researched, comprehensive posts on this - I can only highly recommend reading them.


GAPOMA's picture

As an immunologist that works with autoimmune diseases nearly every day, I'm very familiar with coeliac disease.  In addition I have a daughter (now 30yo) who has displayed symptoms of gluten intolerance for many years (loose stools, abdominal distension, bloating, gas, etc.).  My wife (a pathologist) and I had her tested about 15 years ago, and she did NOT have coeliac disease.  However the symptoms she displayed were very similar to coeliac.  We then had her tested for a sensitivity to wheat, and she is very allergic to wheat (and a number of other grasses and grains).  She is able to tolerate 100% rye breads just fine, and we can add all the "vital wheat gluten" we want to those 100% rye breads and she has no symptoms.  But put 1 gram of wheat into anything (bread, gravy, etc.) and she can tell.

Evidence would suggest that many people that consider themselves "gluten intolerant" these days are actually intolerant of another protein in wheat based products.  I had dinner last night with a friend I only get to see every few years, and it turns out he has the same symptoms that my daughter does, but is also not intolerant to gluten specifically.  Yet he too feels much better (and displays no symptoms) when he avoids wheat based products.

Although there is some anecdotal evidence that a subset of people that display similar symptoms can eat sourdough breads, this is NOT true for my daughter.  Whether sourdough breads are tolerated (or not) is likely determined by the specific antigens (read that "proteins") that each specific person is intolerant of.  So likely it's on a "case-by-case" individual basis.  (Wheat (or flour) has hundreds of antigens in it, of which the "gluten" proteins are only a small fraction.)

In the end my daughter finds it easier to simply tell people she needs to eat "gluten free", as that typically means "no wheat products got near this food during its production".  

Jean -'s picture
Jean - Delightf...

Thank you, GAPOMA, for this concise explanation. I had read about some coeliacs being able to eat true wild yeast sourdough, and yet I would be hesitant to serve it to them! Your comments really cleared things up for me. 

dabrownman's picture

thinking.  It is odd your daughter can take any amount of it in rye bread  when it is 100% wheat but not a bit of wheat flour in something else.  There needs to be a lot more research done on wheat and gluten sensitivity.  Some say that sprouting the grain also helps for many gluten sensitive people.  We just don't know enough to know enough!

Nice post

helion's picture

hello there, after reading some studies available, seems the indications is: the dough must have some lactobacillus and yeasts which will release enzymes to break proteins to amino-acids and sugars to lactic acid. But i wonder what kind of starter will contain the right spores and the time to the dough to ferment and release the full potential of the lactobacillus and yeasts... Reading recipes of sourdough, frequently their instruct to always to put the dough on the fridge at last overnight, but the ancients didn't have fridges. Maybe, today's point of view is to maximize the grow of the dough instead of full conversion to more digestible components... I looking for an ancient recipe (from whatever culture) searching for any clues.  

Norcalbaker's picture

The truth is the test for celiac disease is frequently inconclusive or false negative.    Celiacs disease is in fact often missed or mis-diagnosed all together.   Celiacs disease is genetic.  Some members of my have had multiple tests confirm positive for celiac. While others, like me, keep coming back inconclusive. Despite all the symptoms and multiple tests, the doctors cannot tell me with certainty if its celiacs or not.  

Trying to convince people that it is not the gluten but in fact the type of grain and method is reckless.  Despite inconclusive tests result, my doctor tells me I cannot risk eating gluten for the simple fact that researches know and have known for years that T-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma of the upper intestine is specifically associated with celiacs.  There is also an association of celiacs disease and non-Hodgkin cancers of the larynx, esophagus, and colon.  

In the past few months I've had several people like you tell me it's not the gluten but grain choice and baking method.  In your ignorance, you don't realize you may be encouraging someone toward cancer.  Seriously, stop practicing medicine without medical training and proper licenses.


gerhard's picture

seems to be what muddies the waters of this whole thing.  I don't know if they feel somehow special when asking for gluten free products on the menu but then seem ok with ordering pasta next time out for a meal.  I know two people with celiacs but I have encountered a lot of people that claim sensitivities that don't seem coherent.


Norcalbaker's picture

@Gerhard, or they could be like one of my nieces who refuses to adhere to gluten free because it's too difficult.   She has twice tested positive for celiac's disease. But still eats gluten. Her symptoms were so bad at one point she instructed the doctors to remove her gallbladder, thinking that would help.  Crazy doctors hacked out her gallbladder.  Didn't help her a bit.

Her sister is also celiac, but religiously maintains a gluten free diet.  She so healthy she runs marathons several times a year.

I'm 99.5% gluten free.  I love to bake for friends and family. I know I get some level of cross-contamination because I dont have a 100% gluten free kitchen.  

ouzel's picture

I found out about three years ago that gluten or wheat, or whatever is in flour based foods, wreaks havoc on my body.

So for two years I ate NOTHING at all with any sort of wheat in it. I pretty much just don't eat any processed foods because flour is thrown in everything. I was sad having to give up all the things I love to eat. Cookies, cakes, tortillas, pasta, etc but I learned to live with it.

I don't buy any "gluten free" mixes or breads because, as the original poster pointed out, there's all sorts of weird stuff in them that I don't want to consume.

For me, yes, long fermented sourdough works. But I have to also say that I don't use a traditional starter. I use flour mixed with milk kefir. I make kefir everyday so it's there, no problem and it's already teeming with live yeast and bacteria...sort of a ready made starter.

In addition to making sourdough bread, I now just mix flour with kefir, let it ferment for at least 15 hours and I can use that dough to make all sorts of things, crumpets, pancakes, tortillas, pasta, etc.

So I have no idea what it is that my body is reacting to, I'm no expert. It could be gluten, it could be that wheat flour is just too hard for me to digest and letting it ferment with kefir and having all the little bugs in there pre-digest the wheat is what does the trick but I don't really care. So long as I get to eat all those delicious things again. 

During those two years, I tried making gluten free cookies, breads, etc. The cookies were sweet little dirt nuggets and the breads were dry sponges. I gave up on all those as they weren't really worth it. (Though to be fair, I didn't try very hard to perfect them.)

Again, this is just me. What works for one person might not necessarily work for another.


jimad's picture

I am gluten-free with all the classic celiac symptoms, but haven't had a biopsy (no thank you!)   I just say that I have celiac -- because that's what my doctors think I have, and if I treat myself under the assumption that I have celiac then my symptoms go away.

I recently have been experimenting with gluten-free breads made with the KAF gluten-free sourdough approach -- but using sorghum rather than the ancient grains mix.  The sourdough starter loves sorghum -- I just feed it once a week and keep it in the back of the fridge.  Other GF flours just killed the sourdough starter (which I keep at 100% hydration.)

In my latest experiment I pre-gelatinized tapioca with the water, main starch is potato starch, plus about 20% from the sorghum sourdough, slow rise in the back of the fridge for four days -- and it was wonderful!  "Tastes like real bread."