Every day, an estimated 100 million people consume sorghum worldwide. Most of them are not in the United States.
But that could change very soon, as Americans begin to discover sorghum's tremendous potential to support both human and environmental health.
This ancient cereal grain, which originated in some of the planet's driest, harshest regions, possesses a winning combination of nutritional benefits and agricultural sustainability that has sparked a burgeoning both among scientists and health-conscious consumers alike.
Sorghum—the name of which derives from the Italian sorgo, referring to "tall cereal grains" is widely cultivated as a staple food crop in many African and Asian countries. In some places, it is known by the colloquial name, Broomcorn. The US Grains Council ranks sorghum as the fifth most important cereal crop in the world. Yet for people living in the western world, it is largely unfamiliar.
What we do know about sorghum is extremely positive. Researchers have identified myriad health benefits associated with sorghum consumption. Naturally gluten free, it is an excellent wheat alternative for people with celiac disease and other forms of gluten-sensitivity.
Typically consumed as a whole grain or milled into flour, sorghum can be easily substituted for other less healthy grains in baking and cooking.
Sorghum is also a rich source of protein, fiber, and iron. Additionally, it contains high levels of antioxidants, which have been shown to convey significant anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects (Burdette, et al. J Med Food. 2010; 13(4): 879-887. Awika & Rooney. Phytochem. 2004; 65(9): 1199–1221).
Further research indicates that sorghum offers gastrointestinal and cardiovascular health benefits. In one study, the incorporation of sumac sorghum cereal into subjects' normal diets was found to beneficially modulate gut bacteria and their metabolites, which the authors conclude "may contribute to reduced inflammation and improved glucose sensitivity" (Seidel et al. FASEB J. 2014; 28(1 Supp.): 270.7).
Another experiment on rodents found that consumption of specific lipids extracted from sorghum reduced non-HDL cholesterol levels and inhibited cholesterol absorption (Carr et al. J Nutr. 2005; 135(9): 2236-2240), suggesting that the grain contains compounds that may be beneficial in attenuating the cardiovascular risk associated with hyperlipidemia.
Sorghum's nutritional value derives in part from its remarkable biodiversity. Over thousands of years of cultivation, numerous sorghum varieties have adapted to diverse environments through specialized plant-based protective mechanisms. Consequently, each variety possesses a unique nutrient profile that's specific to the growing conditions of its place of origin.
One notable variety is black sorghum. Originally discovered in the mountainous regions of Ethiopia, it contains extremely high levels of anthocyanins, a group of food pigments with high antioxidant activity present in blueberries and other dark-colored fruits and vegetables.
The most common type of anthocyanin in black sorghum—3-deoxyanthocyanidin (3-DXA)—is much more rare in nature than other anthocyanidins typically found in edible plants. Significantly, 3-DXA is noteworthy because it is highly stable, making them more bioavailable in the lower intestinal tract and elsewhere in the body. Black sorghum is identified as the highest known natural plant source of 3-DXA (Awika et al. F Chem. 2004; 90(1) 293–301).
Another sorghum variety, red sorghum, is native to the plains of Sudan and is also noted for its exceptional antioxidant activity. Similar to red wine, its phenolic content includes resveratrol and tannins, which provide anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, antitumor, and antiviral benefits (Bröhan et al. J Agric Food Chem. 2011; 59(8):4088-4094. Frazier at al. J Pharm Biom Anal. 2010; 51(2): 490–495).
White sorghum is another common variety of the grain, originating in the Tanzania/ Mozambique region of Africa. Although it contains fewer phenolic compounds than its darker relatives and has a comparatively bland flavor, it mills nicely and produces an ideal color and consistency for flour (Dykes & Rooney. J Cer Sci. 2006; 44(3): 236–251).
A Model Sustainable Crop
In addition to its vast nutritional benefits, sorghum is valued for its inherent growability. Because it evolved in harsh, arid environments, sorghum is naturally drought tolerant. Relative to more commonly grown grains like wheat, barley, and corn, sorghum production requires far fewer natural resources—including valuable water.
"It's a model sustainable crop," says Earl Roemer, a fourth-generation farmer who is president and founder of Nu Life Market , a dedicated gluten-free, dairy-free, and peanut-free grain manufacturer based in Scott City, Kansas.
Unlike most other types of grain in the US food supply, sorghum has never been genetically modified, says Roemer, adding that there is a strong position within the sorghum industry to protect the crop from genetic engineering. The desire to maintain strict non-GMO sorghum production is largely motivated, he explains, by new market opportunities and an overwhelming consumer demand for GM-free products.
Roemer says consumers are interested in high-quality foods that are free from genetic modification. "Because non-GMO is now very important to the consumer, it's also important to the companies that are marketing these products," he told Holistic Primary Care. Since all sorghum is currently GMO-free, it's an easy choice for food manufacturers seeking to meet that particular consumer demand.
That said, some multinational food companies now include sorghum flour in their blend mixes, even in products that aren't otherwise gluten- or GMO-free. At least one variety of multigrain Cheerios, for example, lists whole grain sorghum among its ingredients. The sorghum may be GMO-free, but the rest of the grains may not be so.
Sorghum for Celiac Patients
In the United States, about 450 million bushels of sorghum are cultivated each year, primarily for use in livestock feed. Production is concentrated between the arid plains of central Nebraska and the panhandle of Texas, with about half the country's total yield grown in Kansas. Because its climate is most similar to the grain's native regions, Kansas offers ideal growing conditions for producing high-antioxidant sorghum in North America.
Nu Life Market is situated in the heart of sorghum-growing territory in west central Kansas. In the ten years since its inception, and especially within the last five, the company has experienced a huge rate of growth. Because the company's primary focus is on naturally gluten-free sorghum and sorghum products, Roemer attributes the success of his business in large part to the celiac community.
Increasingly, food and health magazines are publishing recipes and otherwise promoting sorghum flour as an ideal gluten-free product for people with celiac. Some find that its sensory characteristics and nutritional benefits—and the similarity of its flavor to traditional wheat flour—make it more appealing than alternatives like rice flour, which tend to be grittier and less nutrient-dense.
Roemer says research interest in sorghum is growing both here in the US and abroad. As investigators continue to define sorghum's many health benefits, its use within the functional food and nutraceutical industries is likely to keep growing. And as its popularity expands, modern consumers will undoubtedly discover new ways to put the ancient grain to use.