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Proving the benefits of an age-old fermentation practice

Ancient practice of fermentation used to make sourdough bread.
Photo: GLNC

Fermentation is the ancient practice of adding microbial organisms to raw materials, and was originally used as a preserving method. It has become a common technique used to change the form, taste and texture of many foods into products we know and love today, including sourdough bread.

The art of sourdough bread-making is thought to have originated with the Egyptians as early as 4000BC; however, its nutritional and therapeutic benefits are only just being understood.

Grains are not the only foods that can be fermented; the process is also used in dairy to make products such as yoghurt and kefir, soy products such as miso and tempeh, vegetables such as sauerkraut and pickles, and drinks such as kombucha. The methods used to make sourdough have since been applied to ferment other grain-based foods such as sourdough pasta.

Many of these fermented products have been gaining popularity in recent years for their perceived health benefits, especially in relation to gut health.

Sourdough versus regular bread: what is the difference?

Most regular breads use commercial yeast to enable the dough to rise, whereas sourdough varieties use natural lactic acid produced by bacteria through the fermentation process. This fermentation and proving process takes much longer than regular breads, giving it a distinctly different taste and texture.

The positive health effects of consuming grain and cereal-derived foods has been well-documented, as they provide dietary fibre and are a mineral-rich source of carbohydrates. However, many grain foods contain the FODMAP family known as oligosaccharides, in particular fructans and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), which for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often trigger intestinal gas, bloating, pain and flatulence.

If you are like many IBS sufferers who avoid bread for this reason, you are in luck. Research has found that an extended fermentation process degrades fructans and GOS to a level that is tolerated well by most people with IBS. This means people with IBS can enjoy the nutritional benefits of bread, minimising the gastrointestinal symptoms they once suffered.

Fermentation presents an exciting opportunity for bread manufacturers to create new products that cater for this consumer group, who otherwise might miss out on the nutritional benefits bread can offer.

Research has highlighted the feasibility of a low-temperature, long leavening time to create products on an industrial scale that have significantly lower FODMAP levels than their unfermented counterparts.

The research has discovered the optimal flour, starter culture, time and temperature to produce fibre-rich sourdough breads with a variety of taste and texture profiles. These processes can be used by bakeries to create a range of products suitable for those with IBS.

The best advice is to understand how your bread is made. Look for wholegrain sourdough products, with the lowest sodium possible, especially if you have gut health issues. For personalised nutrition advice, we recommend seeking support from an accredited practising dietitian.

More information: Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council; Dietitians Australia.

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