Sorghum – A Great Grain Substitute

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA People with celiac disease need alternative cereal grains to replace wheat, rye and barley in their diet. Finding foods to replace these grains is difficult and expensive. Many find that the gluten-free diet is not to their taste.

Frequently the flavors of foods made from unusual flours like ground almonds or other nuts are very different. Not everyone likes the taste or the consistency of breads, cakes, pasta and noodles made from gluten-free grain. Some might say that this is the biggest problem with a gluten-free diet.

Depending on circumstances, other people might say that the high cost of gluten-free food is the biggest problem. This is true for individuals and families that have to buy it, as well as a being an economic burden on some European governments where celiac disease is common and gluten-free food is provided.

The nutritional content of the replacements for gluten is also important. Gluten and the related substances in rye and barley are proteins. The cereals contain important nutrients. People with celiac disease can eat white rice, but all they will get from it is carbohydrates and calories.

A cereal grain that may help with all of these problems is sorghum. It has been believed safe for people with celiac disease because it is closely related to maize and not wheat. Sorghum is now being studied thoroughly and strains evaluated for safety, nutritional value, flavor and cost. Agronomists all over the world are studying this grain.

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A study recently published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry which is a publication from the American Chemical Society added a lot of information to what is known about sorghum, as well as confirming its safety.

In Western countries, sorghum has historically been used to feed animals. In other areas, the traditional diet contains sorghum. In the United States, hybrids are being grown that can be termed “food grade.” Scientists and farmers are aiming to increase the nutritional value of sorghum as it is grown. There is also work on making sorghum derivatives more nutritious after harvest.

Since gliadins, the specific parts of gluten that cause the reaction in people with celiac disease are now well understood, researchers can look for these protein pieces in sorghum. There are specific areas of gliadin that cause reactions in people with celiac disease. Grains can be analyzed and checked for very specific sequences of amino acids that trigger CD.

The recent study checked for these in seven varieties of sorghum, including three from the United States and two from Uganda. The proteins in sorghum are called kafirins, Using “genomic testing,” the sorghum samples were examined to see if their proteins had the troubling amino acid sequences. They did not.

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Two other different types of testing using chemical analyses gave the same results. The kafirins, which would be the gluten-like parts of sorghum, do not contain the blocks of amino acids that affect people with celiac disease.

The flour made from new hybrid sorghum varieties is light in color and does not really change the flavor of dishes made with it. Other ingredients can be used to make foods flavorful without worrying about hiding the taste of the flour. Sorghum is also rich in linoleic and oleic acids, unsaturated fatty acids that are actually necessary in a healthy diet. Additionally, the kafirin proteins contain essential amino acids needed by people (and animals).

It should be noted that sorghum grown as food for animals contains chemicals known as condensed tannins which can make protein harder to digest. This has been bred out of the sorghum varieties being grown for human consumption. They do not have condensed tannins.

Finally, sorghum is inexpensive to grow, harvest, and prepare for use as flour or in other ways.

All of the information in the study leads to the conclusion that using sorghum as a grain replacement can reduce the cost, and improve the nutritional content as well as the flavor of foods in the gluten-free diet.

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Pontieri P., Mamone G., De Caro S., et al. Sorghum, a Healthy and Gluten-free Food for Celiac Patients As Demonstrated by Genome, Biochemical, and Immunochemical Analyses. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2013; 61: 2565−2571.

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