Gluten, Sourdough, Fads and Ailments

Gluten breakdownGluten, that everyday protein found in many grains, has become the health-fad followers’ most recent evil spectre, and many (one in three, stats show) have jumped onto the anti-gluten bandwagon, generally with a simplistic message: “gluten bad.”

Like most diet fads, I expect it will likely fall off centre stage when the next Big Thing To Rise Against comes along. But meanwhile, until the next fad raises its head, gluten gets sensationalized, demonized and generally misunderstood.

Headlines like this abound (it was matched by a CBC Radio story on Ontario Morning Tuesday, Nov. 12):

Sourdough breadmaking cuts gluten content in baked goods
Celiacs and gluten avoiders have a new way to enjoy a slice of bread

That’s from a misleading and potentially dangerous CBC story about sourdough bread. It’s dangerous because there are people who suffer severe reaction from gluten intake (celiac disease or CD), and others who have non-celiac intolerance (sensitivities) to gluten (not, as some sites say, an allergy) and they might be misled to think sourdough bread is now safe.

People – thinking CBC a reliable, even credible source – might consume regular sourdough bread  – or at least bread labelled as “sourdough” – believing this article deems it safe, when it may in fact cause severe and painful reactions.*

The article says:

A handful of recent studies have some good news for those trying to reduce the amount of gluten they eat — old-fashioned sourdough baking techniques significantly cut gluten content in bread…

But the reporter fails to identify those studies, so readers need to research to find out what those studies actually say (and more importantly, what they don’t say). Nor does the writer say whether all sourdough methods work, or just some (Google sourdough starter and you’ll find hundreds of recipes, some including wild yeast, others with domestic yeast). The writer then adds:

A team of Italian scientists led by Luigi Greco at the University of Naples authored a 2010 study that showed significantly lower levels of gluten in sourdough made according to old methods.

Old methods? Like leaving the started in peasant’s thatch-roof, mud-walled hut shared with the family pig?

Well, unless I completely misread it, that study of 13 people didn’t say anything of the sort about “old methods” It showed reduced gluten in “fully hydrolyzed wheat flour” that had been treated in a sterile laboratory environment with a clinical mix of cultured bacteria commonly found in sourdough, as well as adding fungal enzymes:

Fermentation with selected lactobacilli added with fungal proteases, routinely used as an improver in bakery industries, decreased the concentration of gluten to below 10 ppm. Despite the markedly reduced concentration of gluten, the resulting spray-dried flour was still adequately workable. As shown in this and other studies, the hydrolyzed flour is suitable for making sweet baked goods and also bread and pasta if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…

A 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with CD.

Which is good news and encourages further research, but not a promise that all breads labelled “sourdough” will have that effect. Or that the baker’s sourdough starter will have the ingredients in the necessary quantities and balance of ingredients to sufficiently reduce the  gluten in the flour. Or that the length of fermentation will be sufficient to achieve those results. Or that the flours used in the bakery are the same as those used in the research (different flours have different gluten levels).

Notice that caveat for bakers: “…if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…” These test subjects were fed pastries, not breads or pasta.

The About site sums it up::

…this is great news but it does not mean that we can safely bake, buy or eat sourdough bread with any assurance that it contains low, non-toxic levels of gluten. Hopefully, soon we can!

This study was titled, Safety for Patients with Celiac Disease of Baked Goods Made of Wheat Flour Hydrolyzed During Food Processing and was published in the January 2011 issue of the medical journal, Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. You can read the whole text by clicking above, but watch for this warning:

We showed that markedly reduced levels of gluten (3% of the native gluten, eg, 2480 ppm) are able to induce changes in the intestinal mucosa without clinical symptoms.

So a person may not feel the effects, or the effects may go unnoticed, but the gluten is still doing its damage inside of people with CD. Only clinical examinations can tell for sure. So how will the baker’s clients know for sure? When they die?

The study concludes:

…the findings of this study and the above considerations provide the rationale for exploring therapies that could reduce the toxicity of gluten for CD patients beyond the standard gluten-free diet. A wheat flour–derived product is shown to be not toxic after administration for 60 days to CD patients. Hydrolysis of gluten to below 10 ppm was achieved through the activity of complementary peptidases located in the cytoplasm of lactobacilli routinely used in sourdough fermentation. The addition of fungal proteases, used in bakery to modify the elasticity and resistance of gluten, was required to reach the complete gluten degradation.

So the study doesn’t say it’s safe. it does say that the laboratory combination of cultured bacteria and enzymes together  in a clinical environment has promise for gluten reduction and subsequent lowered toxic responses in CD sufferers, but more research is recommended.

There’s a good analysis of the study on that notes:

The wheat flour used to prepare the baked goods for the study was “manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases.” Lactobacilli is a “friendly” bacteria. A form of lactobacilli, lactobacillus acidophilus is commonly used to ferment yogurt. Fungal proteases are groups of enzymes that break down (hydrolyze) the bonds that hold large protein molecules together. Gluten is a large protein molecule.

The Healthy Eating site adds:

Process of Hydrolysis
Hydrolysis ordinarily refers to a process during which water is introduced into a compound in order to break it into its individual component parts. In an Italian study, published in early 2011, researchers hydrolyzed wheat flour through a unique fermentation process. They treated regular wheat flour with lactobacilli — the beneficial bacteria that gives sourdough bread its distinctive taste — and fungal proteases, enzymes that further degraded the gluten in wheat flour. They theorized that the residual gluten in this wheat flour would be so low in concentration that it would be tolerable to people with celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity

So the flour was specially treated in a process similar to sourdough but wasn’t the exact same method used in a bakery. Keep in mind that sourdough uses both wild yeasts and bacteria, and there may be a synergistic effect not found solely in bacterial and enzyme treatment. Not to forget what the CBC points out:

A sourdough starter made on the shores of Vancouver Island will be home to a different ecosystem of microbes than one in Montreal or Italy…

Do researchers know whether sourdough in BC has the same ingredients, same flora and fauna interacting in the same manner as they used in their lab to produce similar results in gluten reduction? No! Surely the bakers don’t know – and don’t have access to the ecosystems used in the lab.

Another, related study noted (emphasis added):

This study showed that a wheat flour-fermented product, having gluten completely degraded, is not toxic for patients with CD. Nevertheless, these foods should not be recommended for patients with celiac disease until a formal trial has been done.

Hysterical sky-is-falling anti-gluten books like “Grain Brain” suggest gluten is nothing less than satanic (listen to the CBC podcast interview). But dietary specialists like Dr. Julie Miller Jones dismiss the author’s claims as misleading. The grain industry has even set up its own website to counter some of Dr. Perlmutter’s claims:

Perlmutter also wants you to get rid of gluten-free products too, by the way. Eat more fat, that’s his message. I’ll bet he likes his morning bacon and eggs.

A similar, earlier book, called Wheat Belly was the gospel of the diet fadists for a while, but it too has been debunked since (this links to a gluten-free writer, too!) and its attendant diet called “unrealistic and unhealthy” and debunked by many more qualified writers than me. And like the later book above, it spawned an industry website to counter the book’s claims. **

Let’s not lose sight of the basic point of a fad diet: to make its creator(s) money. And usually it does: oodles of it. Books, videos, food products, speaking tours, retreats, workshops. Not that everything these authors say is wrong, but take any fad with a big dose of skepticism.

Every diet has its supporters and detractor, of courses. I’m not saying cutting down on the gluten and the extra bread and pastries is bad: just that following any fad diet exclusively is usually wrong and sometimes harmful.

There may something more substantive to the problem than just what the fadsters preach (although focusing on gluten may cause people to overlook other food sensitivities). Gluten breaks down into subproteins which, some authorities say, cause havoc with our immune system:

 One of the most prevalent peptides in gluten containing grains are gliadins, specifically alpha gliadin 33-mer. There are other gliadins such as beta, gamma, and omega and one can react to any of them, but standard testing only addresses alpha gliadin 33-mer. Research indicates that the 33-mer sequence is very difficult to be broken down by the human digestive system. But by far the biggest issue is that the amino acid sequence of the 33-mer structure closely resembles amino acids sequences found in human tissues, such as the thyroid gland or the small or large intestine. This is detrimental to our bodies as any antibodies produced against gliadins will also turn on our own tissue by a process called molecular mimicry. The resulting chronic inflammation and constant barrage on the targeted tissues is the cause for many inflammatory and degenerative conditions and is one of the connections between gluten intolerance and most autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, to give but one example.

So clearly there are things to study, gluten-wise. Are we right to worry? To fear wheat and gluten like it carried some nutritional plague? No.

The sky isn’t falling, but the gullibility levels are rising among the fad followers and you can read the conspiracy theories about how grain merchants are trying to enslave an unsuspecting public online at far too many sites to mention here.

Business Week tells us:

Less than 1 percent of Americans have the disorder that requires a gluten-free diet, yet almost one in three now eschews gluten, according to trend watchers NPD Group, influenced by bestselling anti-gluten books and celebrity endorsements. The U.S. market for gluten-free foods will climb from $4.2 billion in 2012 to $6.6 billion by 2017, according to researcher Packaged Facts, as bread bakers, craft-beer makers and eateries from Hooters to Michelin-starred Hakkasan embrace the trend.

“Consumers, rightly or wrongly, have made a connection between gluten-free and healthy,” said Nicholas Fereday, an analyst at Rabobank. “Grain companies are hoping this trend crashes and burns sooner rather than later. But any trend is a marketing opportunity…”

…Wheat flour consumption has fallen to a 22-year low, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s at least partly due to the work of gluten-free advocates like William Davis, author of 2011’s “Wheat Belly,” and David Perlmutter, who released “Grain Brain” this year. Davis calls wheat “the world’s most destructive dietary ingredient,” while Perlmutter says grains are a “terrorist group” that “are silently destroying your brain.”

Destructive? Terrorist group? Any diet that plays on such hyperbole should be suspect in the minds of critical thinkers.

Best Health Mag tells us gluten-free isn’t problem free, either and we may just end up replacing one perceived ailment with another:

Another reason gluten-free diets worry Nielsen is, despite being hyped as healthy, gluten-free products “are often filled with processed flours like (white) rice flours.” While they’re more difficult to find, less mainstream brands are now offering gluten-free options with brown rice or other whole grains.

Sourdough seems to reduce gluten content in bread, and that’s good to know. However, it looks like it’s a long way before there’s any commercial application. until then, to even suggest that it’s safe for people with Celiac Disease or significant intolerance to gluten to eat commercial sourdough – even from an artisan bakery – is irresponsible.


Sourdough* Most of the commercial “sourdough” breads you  get at grocery stores are not actually sourdough at all. They’re regular yeast bread made with the addition of acetic acid, malic acid, and/or fumaric acid for flavour. Maybe even colouring. Real sourdough is fermented from a starter that uses a symbiotic culture of natural (wild or lambic) yeasts and wild bacteria. There’s a whole, complex and fascinating science of sourdoughs to explore outside the gluten effct. For example, as Discover Magazine wrote:

The principal yeast they found now goes under the name Candida milleri, and the principal bacterium, a species never found in nature before, is called Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. Unlike baker’s yeast, C. milleri is exceedingly tolerant of the acid that the bacterium produces. What’s more, C. milleri doesn’t digest maltose, one of the sugars derived from flour starch. This is unusual for a yeast, and lucky for the bacterium. L. sanfranciscensis, it turns out, can’t live without maltose. That tight, mutually helpful relationship may have allowed some San Francisco bakeries to keep their sourdoughs alive for more than 100 years.

PS. the CBC story also says, again incorrectly:

The result is a slightly sour loaf with cavernous holes throughout and before the advent of commercial yeasts, this was how bread was made.

Yes, sourdough was used to make many types of bread before commercial yeast, but so was yeast from brewers’ vats (like manchet bread) and there was also a lot of unleavened bread, too. It also says:

The return of sourdough baking techniques isn’t only a boon to people who have trouble with gluten. It also means a return to the idea that bread from different places should taste different.

Claptrap! Sourdough was never gone. It’s been used continually since leavened bread has been around. It never had to return. What poor reporting!

** Dr. Davis’s own Wheat Belly website has a good counterpoint from dietitian Janelle Schnake about the real central problem in the US and in Canada:

The problem with obesity and diabetes in America probably–no, certainly–has nothing to do with the intake of wheat bread, but the fact that Americans are lazy and self-serving. The biggest problem with diabetes in America is that, as a culture, Americans want their food quick and fast and cheap and they don’t want to exercise because . . . well, I could repeat all of the absolutely selfish reasons why BUT I’m sure, as a doctor, you have probably heard the same ones I have.

Needless to say since this article came out in Prevention magazine, guess what the backlash I have heard, as an actual practicing clinician who lives in the “real world”: It’s not cutting out wheat products, it’s switching to something even worse: white bread. So congratulations on all of the extra money you have made on your book and magazine articles, but next time let’s face the real issue: Diabetes and obesity is usually caused by inactivity, huge portions, busy families, and poor food choices. Oh, yeah, that doesn’t sell books, my bad!!!!

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  1. Pingback: Is this the end of the gluten-free fad? | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary

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