Sorghum, an ancient cereal grain that's a staple crop in India and throughout Africa, has long been considered a safe grain alternative for people with celiac disease and gluten insensitivity. New molecular evidence confirms that sorghum is completely gluten-free, and reports that the grain provides health benefits that make it a worthy addition to any diet.

Gluten is the flexible protein in common grains like wheat, barley and rye that give them a chewy, springy quality when baked into breads or pastas. Gluten triggers inflammatory reactions in people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity that can cause abdominal pain and digestive issues, and eventually lead to joint pain and intestinal damage. For now, the only way to avoid gluten intolerance is to stick to a strict gluten-free diet.

Paola Pontieri of the Institute of Genetics and Biophysics in Naples, Italy, led a team of researchers in analyzing the recently published sorghum genome in order to confirm that the grain contains no gluten proteins. Their results, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, confirm that the gluten protein is absent in different varieties of sorghum.

They also find a variety of other sorghum health benefits, even for people without gluten intolerance. Sorghum has high nutritional value, with high levels of unsaturated fats, protein, fiber, and minerals like phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and iron. It also has more antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates.

Recent research suggests that certain phytochemicals allow sorghum consumption to reduce the risk of colon and skin cancer more than other grains, and that other properties can promote cardiovascular health and lower cholesterol.

Certain sorghum varieties are more easily digestible than others, and American farmers have started to cultivate varieties that they call "food-grade" sorghum- the grain has historically been grown only for livestock feed in the United States.

Still sorghum is the fifth-most produced grain in the world, behind wheat, corn, rice, and barley. In the United States, only wheat and corn are produced in higher quantities. The grain is considered cheap and easy to grow, since it is drought-resistant, grows in dry climates, and requires less water than wheat.

Sorghum's status as an alternative grain for people with gluten intolerance has made it more available as human food in the United States, and Pontieri's team suggests that its high nutritional value and other health benefits recommend it as a replacement for rice or corn among the general population as well.

"Food-grade sorghums should be considered as an important option for all people, especially celiac patients," their report concluded.

In nations with high sorghum consumption, the grain is often eaten as porridge or boiled like rice as a base for other dishes. The Ethiopian bread injera is made from sorghum, as are a variety of gluten-free beers.

The Whole Grains Council says that sorghum's "neutral, sometimes sweet, flavor and light color" allow it to easily absorb other flavors, and recommends several recipes. In general, sorghum flour can be used as a wheat replacement in breads, pastas, cereals, and baked goods, with a bit of experimentation to mimic the springy quality of gluten.