Sourdough vs. Sourfaux: Read that darn label!

Sourdough is on trend now, largely due to its complex, tangy sour flavor, crispy crust and airy interior. In fact, sourdough is ancient - it is the oldest form of leavened bread and was used as early as 2000 BC in Egypt. Fortunately for us, a growing number of studies suggest that the fermentation required to make sourdough may have numerous nutritional benefits added to our daily bread. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a study showing that naturally fermented sourdough breads are more digestible than those started with baker’s yeast alone, with significantly improved mineral bioavailability. (Rizzello, 2019). [1] Thanks to studies such as these, as well as to the popularity of the recent sourdough-making trend during the Covid pandemic, many of us have come to equate sourdough with good health. Sourdough is really good for our tummies and taste buds. 

Unfortunately, anything marketed as “sourdough” connotes a better nutritional choice to many uninformed consumers. Not all sourdough is created equally: not surprisingly, sometimes the label “sourdough” is nothing more than a marketing subterfuge used by large corporate commercial bread manufacturers piggybacking on the consumer demand for yeast-free bread.

Let’s speak French for a second. Not languages, but baguette. Something that hits all five senses needs protecting. Back in 1993, French lawmakers decided that’s exactly what needed to be done. The French government passed Le Décret Pain, The Bread Decree. This law requires that traditional baguettes be made on the premises where they are sold and can only be made with four ingredients: wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. Baguette is considered a French national treasure and it is protected as such. 

When we look back at the United States culinary tradition, we can surely say that sourdough has become as American as apple pie - even though it was first brought to the country by the French during the California and Yukon gold rushes. This healthier, tastier bread baked without yeast, coupled with its ease of digestibility, has made sourdough bread a staple in many Americans’ diets since the late 1800’s. 

However, unlike the fortunate and venerated baguette, there is no definition of what real sourdough is and therefore no protection for either the poor sourdough nor for unsuspecting consumers. There is currently no USA Food and Drug Administration Standards of Identity for sourdough bread. 

The Real Bread Campaign, a UK alliance for better food and farming, has launched a movement with a broad vision to ensure, among other things, a legal definition for a variety of breads, including sourdough. Their website explains the need for such action by pointing to the way some industrial loaf fabricators use the term: 

A case in point is an ultra-processed product recently unleashed by one of the UK’s largest baking behemoths.* Though marketed with the word sourdough, its wrapper declares it containing 12 components,** four times as many as the number of natural ingredients necessary [to] make genuine sourdough.

In addition to flour, water and salt, the product is manufactured using dried sourdough powder, baker’s yeast, rapeseed oil, palm oil, wheat gluten, soya flour, E472e (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, AKA DATEM, an emulsifier) E282 (calcium propionate, an artificial preservative) and E300 (ascorbic acid, used as an oxidising agent). [2]

Distrubed by this study, we at Izzio hit our local supermarket shelves to see what we would find under the sourdough tag. Sadly, our findings were not different from what The Real Bread Campaign found: shelves stuffed with ultra-processed breads labeled “sourdough” with ingredient lists that read like a cornucopia of pharmaceutical concoctions. 

We really agree with The Real Bread Campaign: such loaves are not even bread, not to mention sourdough bread!

Let's be clear about what real sourdough really is: A nutritious loaf of bread made from water, flour, live starter culture and some salt that is given enough time for the wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria to leaven the dough naturally, without added baker’s yeast, sugar or vinegar. Time is a crucial component in sourdough making, as the complex community of microbes need it to do their job. 

Sounds really simple, right? So why won't all those commercial juggernauts just make a real and simple sourdough? Why do they need to add preservatives, enrichments and other modifying compounds that sound like something out of a periodic table, and are more appropriately used in a lab rather than a bakery? 

The answer is that in reality sourdough fermentation is a labor-intensive, challenging process that requires very skilled bakers. The sourdough baking process is often depicted as a hip and trendy art on social media, but in fact it is not even an art. It is pure silence. 

What is Sourdough Fermentation? 

Making no-yeast bread such as sourdough at home or in a small neighborhood artisanal shop vs. making it in a commercial size batches for nationwide distribution are two very different things. Everything matters: the water - its pH and quality; the flour's chemical properties such as its enzymatic activity level and its protein strength and ability to bond; and the starter culture, or the “mother” as we call it here at Izzio, which is a living being, requiring love, attention, certain temperatures to be stored at, and demanding on-schedule feeding. 

Timing is everything in the naturally fermented sourdough bread making process. It starts with the fermentation timing, which is the crucial element in making the bread gut-friendly and delicious. Some studies suggest that anywhere from 9-16 hours of fermentation are required for the hardworking bacteria to break down the phytic acid, the anti-nutrient contained in the grain that binds minerals and causes all kinds of stomach sensitivities. 

Sourdough fermentation is an extremely short-tempered lady, and even more so nowadays as extremely hot and dry conditions - aka global warming - affect the wheat, weakening protein composition in the flour, increasing enzymatic activity and changing the rate of fermentation, thereby making extended natural sourdough fermentation very difficult. It can cause the breads to tear while in the oven, forming angry tunnel holes all the way through the loaves. Changing climates impact the already-finicky nature of the traditional sourdough bread’s fermentation process and make it extremely difficult to produce real artisan sourdough bread in large batches with consistently excellent quality. 

And this is where commercial big bakeries get better results through modern chemistry. Numerous dough conditioners, baker’s yeast, additives and preservatives are used to tame the little bacteria and make the dough rise before they’ve had a chance to do their job, making the dough “well-behaved”, the batches consistent when it comes to color, weight and shape, and ensuring quick production time with the goal of ensuring maximum profits for shareholders. 

As a result, they produce bread that looks like sourdough and may even taste like long-fermented sourdough, but in reality it is a flour product filled with chemicals and devoid of any of the benefits that genuine sourdough offers. And this is what you find on your local supermarket shelf.

The ultimate solution? Read that darn label! Every time you choose bread, check to see how many ingredients are listed. In the case of sourdough, the shorter the better - optimal is three - water, flour and salt (the bread may contain a couple varieties of wheat). This practice will be useful for any other bread loaf too. If you see words you don’t know, can’t easily pronounce and do not hear in your everyday life, opt for something healthier - something that is actual bread with real nutrition. 

When it comes to Izzio, the combination of innovative technology and mastery of old world baking techniques is what makes us so unique. We bake in small batches and we really give our dough space and time to ferment naturally, without all the processing aids. Thanks to our team of skilled bakers and state-of-the-art procedures, we are able to lovingly bake enough traditional long-fermented artisanal sourdough to be enjoyed nationwide.

If you are looking for Genuine Sourdough try our Take & Bake, Organic version, as this bread is likely to satisfy even the most militant sourdough purist. 

Happy yummy! 

[1] Rizzello, et. al., (2019) Sourdough Fermented Breads are More Digestible than Those Started with Baker’s Yeast Alone: An In Vivo Challenge Dissecting Distinct Gastrointestinal Responses 

* Not wanting to give them free publicity, The Real Bread Campaign chose to shame-not-name the company or product.