Updated: Nov 18, 2020
When many of us think of bread, we think "carbs". Bread is one of the first thing most weight-loss program will advise you to cut out of your diet. On top of that, we've seen in recent years an increase in gluten allergies and intolerance in the general population of the western world. When you look at the sticker of a "whole wheat" Oroweat loaf of sliced bread, you notice a long list of ingredients that are clearly beyond flour, water and salt. Some of them I barely recognize, I suspect they help extend the shelf life and aspect of the bread. Not sure how they are impacting my digestion in the short term, or my health in the long term.
So there are many reason to stay away from bread, strictly speaking from a dietary and health standpoint.
Not all Carbs are created equal
However, not all carbs are created equal. In fact, the square loaf you typically find on the shelf of your supermarket in the US, made with commercial yeast, bears little resemblance to the sourdough bread you can bake at home. This is true not only from a visual or taste standpoint, but also from a nutritional value.
One of the key difference is in the usage of a naturally fermented starter. It is somewhat natural for us to slow down after a meal. During the process of digestion, your body (more specifically your intestines) will mobilize its energy to break down the meal you just ate. Fermented food "pre-digests" the nutrients for you. That's why fermented food is easier to digest. When we think about fermented food, most people think yogurt, or kimchi. Bread does not necessarily comes to mind. However, the process of sourdough bread making with a natural starter follows the same rule: bacteria feed of the yeast and break down the sugars from the flour over a long period of time. It makes it much easier for our body to digest the gluten, resulting in a feeling of fulfilment without bloating.
It all starts with the Flour
The main component of sourdough bread is the flour.
There are dozens of different kinds of flour, with a wide range of nutritional value and properties.
The most common flour is wheat flour. White flour is the most heavily processed and least appealing in terms of nutritional benefits. It is also the cheapest alternative. Next comes bread flour, that contains extra protein, useful to develop the gluten.
Whole wheat flour is the clear winner, and its nutritional benefits have been well studied: notably it contains more protein, iron, vitamins and fiber content, and a lower Glicemic index (GI) than white flour. It is worth noting that whole wheat flour will get oxidized as soon as it is milled, and will loose some of its nutritional value in the process. That means milling your own flour and using it for baking shortly after is the optimal way to preserve all these benefits.
There are many alternative cereals to consider beyond wheat. Rye flour is one of the most popular of the group. Rye grains are high in fiber, and a good source of vitamin E (helps regulate metabolism) and minerals such as copper, magnesium and phosphorous.
What about so called ancient grain flour, such as einkorn and spelt?
Spelt has been cultivated since 5000 BC -- one of the oldest grains known to be continuously used by mankind. It contains higher levels of protein, manganese, niacin, thiamine, copper & vitamin B2 than regular wheat. It is also high in fiber which helps reduce “bad” cholesterol levels. Spelt contains less gluten than regular wheat , so it’s easier to digest for some (though still not suitable for Celiacs).
High impact Seeds: nutritional boost
Beyond flour: while not necessarily a unique feature of sourdough bread, one of the easiest path to boost the health benefits of your bread is to add seeds and nuts, such as sesame, flax, sunflower, poppy, walnuts. For the home baker, seeds may be added as topping or incorporated into the dough. Not only they are highly nutritious, but they also add their unique and delicious flavor to the loaf.
Sesame seeds: Not only are sesame seeds an excellent source of copper and a very good source of manganese, but they are also a good source of calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc, molybdenum, selenium, and dietary fiber. In addition to these important nutrients, sesame seeds contain two unique substances: sesamin and sesamolin. Both of these substances belong to a group of special beneficial fibers called lignans, and have been shown to have a cholesterol-lowering effect in humans, and to prevent high blood pressure and increase vitamin E supplies in animals.
Poppy seeds: They are a rich source of thiamin, folate and other essential mineral including calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc. Poppy seeds are known to relieve exhaustion, decrease anxiety and aid a good night's sleep.
Sunflower seeds: Sunflower seeds are excellent sources of several nutrients — including vitamin E and selenium — and beneficial plant compounds that can help prevent chronic diseases.
Flax seeds: Flax seeds are good sources of many nutrients. Their health benefits are mainly due to their content of omega-3 fats, lignans and fiber.
Walnuts: Walnuts are primarily made up of protein and polyunsaturated fat. They contain a relatively high percentage of omega-3 fat, which has been linked to various health benefits (also known by food marketers as "super food").
While it's important to keep in mind these nutritional benefits when baking bread, baking your own sourdough bread from scratch is ultimately about regaining control of your health and achieve the perfect balance of taste, density, crust and shape. There are almost infinite variations the bread maker can choose between the mix of flour and the added seeds.
Now it's time to take this knowledge to practice!