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Is Sorghum Gluten-Free? Yes, Sorghum Flour is a Safe Food for People With Celiac Disease or Gluten Sensitivity

By: Peter Olins, PhD on June 19, 2013

Celiacs often struggle to find gluten-free substitutes for wheat that are both pleasant to eat and nutritious. Sorghum flour is widely believed to be a good wheat-substitute for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Forty percent of the world’s sorghum is produced for human consumption, mainly in Africa and India, and sorghum flour made from these grains is a staple food for 300 million people. Different cultures use sorghum in a bread form, as a porridge, as couscous, or as a beer. In the West, sorghum has been typically used as a feed for farm animals, but this is now changing, with the increasing interest in gluten-free alternatives to wheat.

What is the Evidence that Sorghum is Gluten-Free?

Gluten-Free Sorghum Flour -03Sorghum is in the grass family, and is more closely related to grains like rice or corn (maize) than wheat. “Kifirin” is the main storage protein in sorghum, and is only distantly related to the storage proteins in wheat (gluten). A small study (Ref. 1) tested the effect of digested protein fragments from sorghum on intestinal biopsy samples from 8 patients with active celiac disease. No evidence of inflammation was observed. In contrast, biopsy samples treated with protein fragments from wheat gluten gave a positive signal in four different assays for inflammation. Based on this result, the effect of consuming a large amount of sorghum flour (150g daily) on two people with well-controlled celiac disease patients was tested. Baked goods containing sorghum were eaten for 5 days (cookies, cakes or bread). No negative symptoms were observed.

The other way to test for the presence of proteins related to wheat gluten is the “Mendez R5 ELISA” assay. This assay detects proteins that are closely related to gluten (although it does not measure safety directly). A recent study (Ref. 2) tested 7 sorghum flours, and found that all sorghum samples had “gluten” levels of less than 5ppm—well below the proposed 20 ppm cutoff for a safe gluten-free food.

Gluten-free Sorghum Flour -01
Ref. 1: Celiac disease: In vitro and in vivo safety and palatability of wheat-free sorghum food products. Clinical Nutrition (2007) 26, 799–805 Ciacci C, et al.

Ref. 2: Sorghum, a Healthy and Gluten-free Food for Celiac Patients As Demonstrated by Genome, Biochemical, and Immunochemical Analyses. J Agric Food Chem. 2013 Mar 5. Pontieri P, et al.

Pros and Cons of Sorghum Flour as a Gluten-Free Alternative to Wheat

Modern varieties of sorghum have been bred to be paler in color and less bitter than traditional varieties, resulting in a flour that is highly versatile. Several manufacturers now offer reasonably-priced sorghum flour that can be be used alone or blended with other starches. Sorghum flour is a good source of protein, fiber and fats, but is lower in certain amino acids and vitamins than wheat (Ref. 3), so it needs to be combined with other foods to achieve balanced nutrition. Quinoa is another excellent gluten-free option for celiacs, and has a superior nutritional profile (Ref. 4).

Ref. 3: The gluten-free diet: safety and nutritional quality. Nutrients. 2010 Jan;2(1):16-34. doi: 10.3390/nu20100016. Epub 2010 Jan 14. Saturni L, et al. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22253989

Ref. 4: Is Quinoa Gluten-Free? Yes, But Recent Research Raises Questions for Celiacs

What about Sorghum for Gluten-Free Beer?

As I discussed last year (Ref. 5), beer made from barley or wheat contains gluten, so many brewers have been experimenting with other seeds and grains, to create a beer that is suitable for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. As I will discuss in a future blog, many brewers rely on malted gluten-free sorghum as a starting point for gluten-free beer. In African countries, sorghum is a common ingredient for making beer, and this often involves not only yeast fermentation, but bacterial fermentation, as is used in sourdough bread, for example.

Ref. 5:  Is “Gluten-Free” Beer Made From Barley Malt Safe for Celiacs?


The latest research provides further evidence suggesting that sorghum flour should be a safe alternative to wheat, and suitable for the gluten-free diet of people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

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