Could 2017 be the breakout year for home-grown ancient grain sorghum?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Snikiddy's Smashpop snacks combine popped corn and wholegrain sorghum
Snikiddy's Smashpop snacks combine popped corn and wholegrain sorghum

Related tags Cereal

It might not have attracted as much media attention as quinoa or chia, but sorghum – a home-grown gluten-free grain that is every bit as attractive in the nutritional and sustainability stakes - is steadily gaining traction in food applications, not least because it’s more affordable than other ‘ancient grains,’ says the United Sorghum Checkoff.

One of the top five cereal crops in the world, sorghum – which has a neutral to slightly nutty taste - is a staple in many parts of the world, where it is used in porridges, roti flatbreads, couscous and alcoholic drinks such as Baijiu.

And while a large percentage of the US crop is exported, and much of the rest goes into livestock feed and ethanol production, sorghum has been picking up a significant amount of steam in domestic food formulations, albeit off a small base, Doug Bice, Sorghum Checkoff marketing director, told FoodNavigator-USA.

Sorghum product lines increased by nearly 40% in 2015 compared to 2014

“Sorghum food product lines increased by nearly 40% in 2015 compared to 2014 and based on all the product testing that is currently ongoing for sorghum within key market segments, especially in the snack industry, we expect 2017 to be a breakout year. It wouldn’t be surprising if the number of sorghum-based foods exceeds 500 product lines by late 2017 or early 2018. We’re also seeing a lot of growth in petfood applications.”

Whole grain sorghum contains approximately 5 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per 3/4 cup serving (cooked).

He added: “Sorghum has a similar nutritional profile to other ancient grains, it’s gluten-free, non-GMO, sustainable ​[drought-tolerant], it’s got fiber, protein, iron, magnesium, vitamin B6, and lots of interesting phytochemicals, and it’s grown right here in our backyard ​[primarily in the Great Plains from South Dakota to Texas]. Sorghum checks off every box, but it’s also cost effective.

“We like to say, ‘Ancient Grain, American-Grown.’ Some hybrids are also being developed that are particularly high in certain antioxidants ​[for example, purple plant sorghums are gaining traction on these grounds].

While sorghum is not a ‘complete protein’ [it does not have much lysine], it has a comparable level of protein to other ‘ancient’ grains and it works well with other sources of protein that can balance this out, such as pea protein, he said.

Sorghum applications Label Insight July 2016
A search of the Label Insight database identifies 463 packaged food and beverage products with sorghum in (out of a database of 234,000 products).
United Sorghum Checkoff-graph
The percentage of the US sorghum crop that is devoted to food increased from 1% in 2014 to 3% in 2015

We’re seeing particular growth in children’s snacks

While much of the growth has come from the bread, cereals and snacks sector – sorghum is used by high-profile food brands including Go Lean (Kashi), Cheerios, KIND, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Daiya Foods, Udi’s Gluten Free and Enjoy Life Foods – it is also increasingly being used in pasta, salads, entrees and side dishes where rice or couscous might be used, he said.

Sharon Palmer- IFT2016
Plant powered dietitian Sharon Palmer cooked up a sorghum-based storm at the IFT show in Chicago last month. Pic: United Sorghum Checkoff

“It’s in more than 400 different ​[retail] products in the US now, whereas two years ago, it was less than half that, and I think a lot of that is due to the marketing work we’ve done.

"We can't afford to do a 'Got Milk' style campaign, but we’ve been at all the food shows showing people what you can do with sorghum, so at the IFT show for example we had scores of different applications, and we’ve launched the SimplySorghum​ website that has recipes and cooking tips for consumers and chefs that work in industry.”

Unlike some other 'ancient' grains such as quinoa, sorghum is "grown right here in our own backyard," says United Sorghum Checkoff marketing director Doug Bice

He added: “We’re seeing particular growth in children’s snacks, pillowed, puffed and popped snacks. We’re also seeing it in more menu selections in foodservice. It’s very versatile, so it can be steamed, popped, flaked or consumed as a whole grain or syrup, or you can buy sorghum flour.

“However, we still need more companies to handle sorghum in their milling operations, to get more companies involved in the production of sorghum ingredients, although big companies such as Ardent Mills and ADM are supplying sorghum products now as part of their ancient grains portfolios.”

sorghum ingredients-checkoff
Sorghum ingredients. Picture: United Sorghum Checkoff

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