With a recent USDA update to school menu programs and other industry efforts to increase the ancient grain’s usage in more food applications, sorghum could finally become just as big as rice or quinoa, claimed Dabruzzi.
Effective July 1, 2022, the USDA issued a final rule requiring that at least 80% of weekly grains served to US children as part of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program must come from whole grains. Adding momentum to this decision, the USDA also added sorghum to its Food Buying Guide for Child Nutrition used by school foodservice directors and professionals to comply with USDA nutrition requirements.
“This announcement couldn’t have come at a better time because sorghum can be that solution for foodservice directors and foodservice professionals to fill that gap and incorporate more whole grains into their school menus,” Lanier Dabruzzi, director of food innovations and institutional markets for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, told FoodNavigator-USA, who said that the Sorghum Checkoff is currently actively working with schools to help incorporate the US-grown ancient grain into its menus for kids.
“What a lot of them are interested in is the versatility. There are a lot of applications in the culinary world that we’re seeing using sorghum on top of salads, as a gluten-free flour option in muffins, and other baked goods, or as a rice replacement.
“It’s a familiar enough for students to try, but still feels like this fresh new ingredient that fun and exciting,” said Dabruzzi.
Sorghum is hearty enough to stand up to bulk cooking in foodservice applications such as school lunches, she added.
“When you cook it and refrigerate or freeze it and take it out again, it retains that moisture and structure. That is a huge advantage in these large foodservice applications."
Nutritional edge: More protein than quinoa...
Nutritionally, ½ cup of cooked sorghum contains 10g of protein and 6g of fiber per serving and is a rich source of vitamins and minerals including vitamin B6, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and niacin.
“People are looking for food not only for nutrition and flavor, they want to know what else their food can do for them,” said Dabruzzi, who noted that emerging research shows that consumption of sorghum can have immune-boosting benefits due to being high in key nutrients such a zinc, copper, and selenium.
As a domestically grown crop, food product developers are not subject to the same supply challenges and delays as some other imported ancient grains, added Dabruzzi.
“It definitely ensures that consistent reliable supply without any of the import issues,” said Dabruzzi, noting that the grain’s carbon footprint is also much lower than other comparable grains.
Sorghum is a drought-resistant grain requiring 30% less water than comparable grains and can help build and improve soil health during its growing cycle, noted Dabruzzi.
‘The goal is to increase the use of sorghum in the US food supply'
The US is the world’s largest supplier of sorghum with 6.5 million acres of farmland producing an average yield of 69 bushels per acre, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AMRC). Despite an abundant supply, the Sorghum Checkoff noted that just 2% (45 million bushels) of all sorghum produced in the US goes towards human food production while 30% of annual production is used for ethanol production and the rest goes into animal feed.
So what's holding sorghum back? According to AMRC, sorghum, especially in its flour form, has dealt with some challenging sensory issues in the past.
“There are two characteristics of the plant that make its use in human food challenging. First, phenolic acid and tannins cause flour made from sorghum to have a bitter flavor. Second, the lack of gluten restricts sorghum’s usefulness in the food industry, although there is significant demand for gluten-free flours,” noted AMRC.
New innovation with low-tannin sorghum flours as well as higher-protein varieties of sorghum have come to market that have helped broaden consumer acceptance and adoption by food manufacturers combined with growing consumer demand for gluten-free grain options.
Currently, over 1,400 branded food items from pasta to packaged snacks include sorghum as an ingredient, a significant jump from approximately 300 products in 2015, according to the USDA.
“The goal is to increase the use of sorghum in the US food supply,” said Dabruzzi, noting that 80% of US consumers that have tried sorghum once continue to use it at home, according to consumer research done by the Sorghum Checkoff.
“That’s a remarkable retention rate for an ingredient that a lot of folks just aren’t familiar with.”
“The goal is to drive that consumer demand to then drive that manufacturer innovation and new products. It checks off a lot of those boxes that consumers are looking for,” she added.