Breads that help to target gut health are gaining increasing traction in the market, with suppliers investing in their development.

Fermented food has been one of the big health trends of recent years, driving interest in the likes of kefir, kombucha, kimchi and, of course, sourdough.

This stems from the impact of fermented food on a person’s gut microbiome – the bacteria, fungi and other microbes in the gut that are important to digestion, immune function and weight regulation.

“The gut microbiome is now rightly being recognised as the new frontier for preventative medicine,” says Leo Campbell, co-founder of Oxford-based Modern Baker.

In long-fermented sourdough, the rising process is driven by bacteria in the environment and wild yeasts on flour. The wild yeast inhibits development of phytic acids in the bread, which is claimed to boost its nutritients and make it easier to digest.

“Until industrial times, no society ever consumed milled grains that had not been either soaked or fermented,” says Campbell. “Proper, long fermentation, when aligned to the right ingredients, proving and baking, lowers the glycaemic index, releases nutrients not otherwise available and a dozen other beneficial effects to human digestion.”

Modern Baker is conducting research projects around healthier bread, including one on the use of fermented sourdough in large-scale healthier bread production. It is working with Newcastle University to test the value of foods on gut health using the university’s model gut system, a lab version of the human digestive system.

There is still much to understand about the effect of long fermentation bread, given the complexity of the microbiome.

“Potential health benefits claimed for long fermentation and sourdough breads are often associated with improved digestibility,” says Stan Cauvain, managing director of bakery consultant Baketran. “The functions of the microbial biome of humans are complex and highly individual, so it’s sometimes difficult to establish whether it’s an overall effect or purely an individual one.”

Cauvain suggests similar functional effects on the human biome could also result from increasing the level of resistant starch.

Other areas where sourdough can have an impact on the health perception of baked goods are salt reduction and shelf-life.

Sourdough has been used to add flavour to breads, and has helped mitigate flavour lost to reduced salt levels. And long-fermented sourdoughs have a higher acid content than many other doughs, which gives them a longer mould-free shelf life.

“The addition of traditional sourdoughs helps extend the shelf life of artisan bread,” explains Bridor baker Jonathan Warwick. “This reduces the number of chemicals and improvers required, while delivering a superior taste and aroma.”

Bridor carefully controls fermentation times and temperatures of its products, he says. “The yeast is not forced, so the result is a more natural process, where all of the enzymes are able to develop in the dough.”

Bakels, meanwhile, has been exploring breads suitable for a low-fodmap diet, and has developed a low-fodmap bread mix that is selling into the Australian market.

Fodmaps (fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) are sugars found in foods including wheat, pulses and dairy. These aren’t absorbed properly in the gut, and may lead to symptoms such as bloating and pain.

“Although in its infancy, the introduction of low-fodmap breads has created interest in the market,” says Bakels marketing manager Michael Schofield, adding that longer fermentation gives yeast more time to break down and eliminate fodmaps.

Opportunities such as this suggest the development of long-ferment breads is likely to keep bubbling along nicely.

Why hasn’t veg bread taken root?

Few things say health more clearly than vegetables and, with plant-based eating a booming trend, surely pairing bread and veg should be a no-brainer?

Yet, despite the success of vegetable-fortified bread in some parts of the world, including North America and Canada, it has struggled to make its mark in the UK.

There are exceptions, of course: vegetable-infused wraps and pizza bases are winning over British consumers; Seasons Bakery’s Beetroot Multiseed Sourdough loaf was declared Britain’s Best Loaf last year; and the Vegbred brand, made with 50% sweet potato, has secured listings in Planet Organic.

“Flavour profiles in the UK are evolving at an incredible pace and in supermarkets, where you would previously have seen predominantly sliced loaves, we are seeing more shelf space dedicated to flavoured breads,” says Bridor baker Jonathan Warwick.

But he adds that one downside to using vegetables is seasonality: “Manufacturers often struggle to maintain a consistent level of flavours, especially with high-water-content vegetables,” he explains. “This has been partly responsible for the prevalence of Nordic-influenced breads, as most of the inclusions are seeds or oatflakes which are consistent all year round.”

One potential stumbling block is consumer perception. Vegetable materials do not always retain their typical colour and appearance through dough mixing, processing and baking and this may detract from the consumer perception of product quality.

The potential for vegetable-infused breads may also be limited by impact on taste, suggests Stan Cauvain, managing director of bakery consultants Baketran. “Many vegetable products have strong flavours that consumers may not associate with bread; often vegetables contribute ‘earthy’ flavours,” he says.

Another consideration is just how much health benefit vegetables will provide in bread.

“In reality, vegetable-based breads are struggling to add significant nutritional benefits over and above pre-existing benefits such as wholegrain/fibre, which may be a barrier for some consumers,” says Miriam Bernhart, category market director, bread ingredients, Europe at CSM Bakery Solutions.

She adds, however, that using vegetables in bakery may help to address the wider negative health perceptions of bread.