How to Spot Fake Sourdough at the Store (Panera too!)

by Sarah Traditional Preparation of GrainsComments: 53

fake sourdough bread at the storeAs awareness of the benefits of sourdough bread increases, so does the potential for food manufacturers – both large and small – to exploit the term.

And exploit it they most certainly do!

I recently examined every single loaf of bread at a local healthfood store. I found only one out of over half a dozen that claimed to be “sourdough” that was leavened in a traditional manner. No, it wasn’t the The Essential Baking Company sourdough bread in the picture above. You won’t believe what this company is doing to fool consumers. Even I was shocked, and I thought I had seen it all.

If you choose to buy instead of make sourdough bread yourself (yes, it is a bit time consuming!), then be on the lookout for fake sourdough!

It is literally everywhere!

Spotting phony sourdough is a more difficult process than you might think due in part to the sourdough myths that seem to abound.

When I first set out to write this article, I thought it would be fairly straightforward to explain. As it turns out, spotting a fake sourdough is rather tricky due to unethical food manufacturer tactics that are far sneakier and devious than I ever imagined.

You really need to be on your toes when sourcing sourdough bread to ensure that you aren’t wasting your money on a product you thought was a healthy choice for your family, but in fact, was quite the opposite.

If you use reading glasses, be sure to always bring a pair with you into the store so you can read the fine print on the packaging. If you wait until you get home to take a look, chances are you are going to be disappointed.

Fake Sourdough Masquerading as Real

The picture above shows one of the most popular fake sourdoughs on the market as of this writing. I was asked to take a look at it by a reader who thought it was legit. This brand is available at many healthfood stores. At my local Whole Foods, it is very prominently placed with an attractive display right near the checkout lines.

Some folks have notified me that it is also available at Sam’s Club and Walmart mega-supermarkets too!

Notice how the company has taken great care to appeal in every way to the health conscious, time challenged consumers:

  • The loaf is clearly labeled “Sourdough”.
  • The USDA Organic certification is front and center on the box.
  • The NonGMO Verified label is prominently shown.
  • The term “Bake at Home” is used to catch the eye of time strapped consumers, some of whom WANT to provide fresh baked sourdough for their family, but just don’t have the time.

I give this label a 10 out of 10.  Fantastic marketing that is sure to move those boxes off the shelf like hot cakes. It’s even priced like a real sourdough would be at $6+/loaf where I live.

Here’s the sneaky part. The ingredients on the label of this phony sourdough are DIFFERENT than what is on the website. Yes, the company has obviously done its research. Consumers are increasingly checking out products online before buying. Don’t fall for this trick. Below is an online screengrab from December 28, 2016 of the ingredients for this company’s “sourdough” bread:

fake sourdough ingredients online

Notice the ingredients say: organic unbleached wheat flour, water, sea salt, organic barley malt.

To semi-researched consumers who know enough about sourdough bread to understand that it never contains yeast, this is enough information to fool them and get them to buy.

Take care not to be easily fooled, however! Look what I found when I looked at the actual label of this very same sourdough bread at the store. Check out the photo below taken on the very same date – December 28, 2016.

The exact same sourdough bread has YEAST listed on the box!

fake sourdough ingredients on the box

This is a new tactic I have not been aware of before … listing different ingredients for a product online versus what is on the label. This is not a case of a simple mistake or typo either. The website listing for this product is clearly intended to mislead. Online it states “under five ingredients” using a “natural starter” with the bread “fermented” at a cool temperature for over 12 hours. The box at the store, however, lists 5 ingredients and the “natural starter” turns out to be yeast, which is most decidedly unnatural when it comes to sourdough! Other problems with this bread include the use of sweetener (organic barley malt) and white flour.

If a product seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I mean, seriously? Would an authentic sourdough come in a convenient “bake at home in 12-15 minutes” package that is shelf stable for nearly 6 months?

Absolutely not!

Authentic Sourdough Labels

The label of true sourdough bread is going to list sourdough starter instead of yeast in the list of ingredients. For example, the gluten free sourdough bread I buy from a local bakery has “cultured brown rice flour” listed as the starter.

The wording for the sourdough starter will vary from brand to brand, but there will usually be some indication of a cultured starter that was used instead of yeast as the leavening agent. This is important because naturally leavened bread is more digestible, nutritious and less likely to trigger allergy problems than modern, yeast rise breads.

I say usually because some brands don’t list a starter at all. Take Berlin Bakery Spelt Sourdough as an example. This brand is widely available in the freezer section of healthfood stores. This bread only lists whole grain spelt flour, water, and sea salt as the ingredients. This brand is a true sourdough that I’ve personally used that is delicious.

Ultimately, the consumer really must take the time to ensure that the sourdough bread of their choosing really is what it claims.

Sourdough Bread Rules of Thumb

Here are some rules of thumb to identify authentic sourdough bread:

  • A handful of ingredients
  • No yeast
  • Cultured flour starter
  • No sweetener
  • Made using whole grain flour
  • Dough is fermented before baking for at least 4-6 hours

After examining the label, if you are still unsure, a phone call or email to the company is a good idea. Ask how long the sourdough is allowed to rise (double in size) before baking. A true sourdough is going to rise for a minimum of about 4-6 hours and even as long as 10-15 hours depending on the temperature. If the whole grain dough is properly fermented, no yeast is ever needed and sweeteners should never be used.

Fake Sourdough At Panera

Be aware that Panera markets its sourdough as real when it is fake too. Longtime reader Beth S. sent me this email from Panera customer support when she inquired about the authenticity of its sourdough bread. This email was used with Beth’s permission.

While this answer sounds promising, examining the ingredients of Panera Bread’s sourdough quickly identifies it as a fake. From the Panera website:

Unbleached Enriched Wheat Flour (Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, [synthetic] Folic Acid), Water, Salt, Yeast (Yeast, Sorbitan Monostearate, Ascorbic Acid [GMO]), Dough Conditioner (Ascorbic Acid [GMO], Microcrystalline Cellulose [refined wood pulp], Corn Starch [GMO])

Not only is the Panera sourdough a phony, it contains yeast, wood pulp, and GMOs. It is also fortified with synthetic vitamins including dangerous folic acid (instead of natural folate).

At least The Essential Baking Company’s fake sourdough described earlier in this article is organic with no GMOs or other toxic ingredients.

As you can see, the phony sourdoughs on the market today range from simply misleading to downright dangerous. Best to avoid them all and get the real thing!

Do you currently buy an authentic sourdough that is leavened and baked in a traditional manner? If so, what are the ingredients and what is the brand?

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

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