Food Science and Human Nutrition graduate student recognized for sourdough fermentation research

Caitlin Clark smiles next to her research poster.

Caitlin Clark, a graduate student in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University, researches food fermentation, hoping to find viable solutions for individuals that are sensitive to gluten. Through this, Clark hopes to create the possibility of fermenting sourdough bread so that it can process gluten in a way that makes it safe for gluten-sensitive individuals. Her work resulted in being awarded the Excellence in Research and Scholarship award at CSU’s Graduate Student Showcase, one of five sponsored by the College of Health and Human Sciences.  

What inspired you to conduct this research?  

I am associated with the Food Structure and Function Lab under Dr. Charlene Van Buiten. Our lab is principally interested in the effects of processing plant proteins and the impacts of said processing on human health. My personal area of interest has always been fermented foods—for example, my master’s research was on chocolate. So, this project was the perfect intersection of my interest and the lab’s capabilities since it examines food fermentation as a processing method to affect plant proteins and attempts to clarify the impact of this processing on human health outcomes.

During COVID, sourdough really surged in popularity and the Extension agents in our department started getting more questions about it, which just confirmed our belief that this project is both interesting and timely 

What impact do you hope this research will have?  

People have been making bread for thousands of years, and lots of researchers even believe that bread making may have been what originally brought humans together into settled communities. Bread is part of countless religious and social rituals. People on gluten-restricted diets who can’t eat bread are excluded from this essential cultural touchstone.

We hope that from my research, we might find a couple of sourdough microbiomes that can process gluten (through fermentation) in a way that makes it safe for some gluten-sensitive people to consume. We can’t make any blanket statements about it yet, but if we open the door for even a few people who can’t eat bread today to be able to participate in making and eating bread in the future, we think that could offer certain gluten-sensitive folks the chance to participate in their families, communities, and cultural rituals in a way that they currently miss out on. And that’s an important goal.  

What does receiving this award mean to you?  

I’m very grateful to have received this award because it means that the story of my research that is meaningful and fascinating to me is also captivating to other people. It makes me so happy to know that I was able to simply tell other people what I’ve been working on, and other people found it valuable and interesting enough to validate my project with this award. I’m glad to know that the judges think my project is useful and fills a gap, and that it captured the interest of those who heard me describe it. 

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.