March 2020 Issue
Ancient Grains: Sorghum
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Vol. 22, No. 3, P. 10
This once-uncommon grain is now surging in popularity.
Sorghum is an ancient grain, defined by the Oldways Whole Grains Council as “a grain that has remained largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.” Despite its longevity, according to the council’s 2018 survey of consumers, only 31% of respondents had heard of sorghum and only 7% had tried it. But due to its gluten-free status, its couscouslike shape, and its high fiber content, it’s positioned for a surge in popularity. In fact, a 2016 article in Vogue magazine dubbed sorghum “the next quinoa.”1
According to the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, sorghum originated in northeastern Africa. The earliest known record of sorghum dates back to 8000 BC from an archeological dig in the area. The crop spread to India and China and eventually made its way to Australia. In the United States, the first known record of sorghum comes from Benjamin Franklin, who in 1757 wrote about its application in producing brooms. Today, it’s grown throughout what’s known as the Sorghum Belt, which runs from South Dakota to southern Texas.
In 2018, American farmers planted 5.7 million acres of sorghum, but most of that was used for livestock feed and ethanol production, according to Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, LD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics and director of the didactic program in dietetics at Saint Louis University.2 Compare that, she says, with Africa, India, and China, where sorghum is a dietary staple.
Sorghum, also known as milo, is a member of the grass family.3 The grains can vary in color, from white or red to golden-brown or purple. Sorghum seeds have an edible hull. The whole grain is a good source of protein (5 g) and an excellent source of fiber (8 g) per 1/4-cup serving.4
“Sorghum is also rich in phytochemicals, including anthocyanins, flavones, tannins, and phenols,” says Caroline Sluyter, MS, program director of the Oldways Whole Grains Council. Most of the phytochemicals are concentrated in the bran fraction.5 Because the outer hull remains, even processed (eg, cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, or cooked) sorghum should provide a balance of nutrients similar to that found in the original grain seed. The exception is pearled sorghum, in which the bran and some of the germ is removed to create a softer product.2
Sorghum syrup is a sweetener made by evaporating the water from the extracted juice of sweet sorghum stalks.6 There are several varieties of sorghum, some sweeter than others. Sorghum syrup provides a bit of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron. While similar to blackstrap molasses, sorghum syrup tends to have a thinner consistency and is less nutrient dense.7
Whole-grain sorghum flour is made by milling the whole grain into a flour and is high in fiber, providing about 6 g per 1/2 cup, an amount similar to whole wheat flour.8 Refined sorghum flour also has about the same amount of fiber as refined wheat flour (1.5 g per 1/2 cup).
Sorghum isn’t commonly found in US supermarkets, but the grain, flour, snacks, breakfast cereals, and pasta are widely available online from suppliers such as Bob’s Red Mill, Nature2Kitchen, Organic Grains, Shiloh Farms, and To Your Health Sprouted Flour Company, and in natural supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Sprouts.
Linsenmeyer compared prices and found sorghum products to be more expensive than bulgur or brown rice but less expensive than buckwheat. Around the world, sorghum is used to make a variety of foods, including flat bread, couscous, and porridge. In the US South, sorghum syrup is sometimes used on pancakes and biscuits.
Studies on sorghum’s health benefits are limited. However, Linsenmeyer says whole-grain sorghum is being investigated for its possible beneficial role in CVD, certain cancers, diabetes, and obesity, and preliminary animal and laboratory studies suggest several health benefits.
The starches and sugars in sorghum are released more slowly than in other cereals, possibly offering a healthful carbohydrate for people with diabetes.9 In addition, a laboratory study found that some sorghum varieties that are high in phenolic compounds have the ability to significantly inhibit protein glycation, a biological process involved in diabetes and insulin resistance.10
As far as cancer prevention, compounds in sorghum, present in the greatest amounts in its darker-color versions, have the ability in the laboratory to prevent colon cancer cells from multiplying.11 A study in rats found that the resistant starch in sorghum helped prevent weight gain by affecting levels of the hormones leptin and adiponectin, which have been shown to affect appetite and weight.12 In Africa and Asia, sorghum-based food products have been found to effectively treat malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.13-15
Cooking With Sorghum
Sorghum requires a longer cooking time than most other grains. According to the Oldways Whole Grains Council, whole-grain sorghum can be soaked overnight, like dried beans, or simply rinsed and cooked. Mix one cup of whole-grain sorghum with three cups of water and simmer for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the kernels are tender. It can be used like quinoa or rice as a side dish, or in salads or soups.
Sorghum flour can be used in breads, rolls, cakes, cookies, and sauces. The Whole Grains Council recommends substituting 10% to 20% sorghum flour for whole wheat flour in a recipe to start and adjusting the percentage through trial and error. But, Sluyter says, “Gluten-free grains like sorghum are tricky to use in breads in terms of texture and rise, so sorghum is more likely to be used as an intact grain (like rice and quinoa) or incorporated into cereals and snack products.”
Sorghum also is sold as a puffed or flaked cereal, and clients can even pop the kernels like popcorn.
While more research is needed—especially clinical trials to test sorghum’s health effects in humans—preliminary findings from animal and laboratory studies suggest the compounds found in sorghum benefit health. But one thing is certain: Sorghum is gluten-free, offering a possibly overlooked nutritious option for people with celiac disease and nonceliac gluten sensitivity.
— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.
1. Hartman E. Sorghum is the new quinoa! 3 top chefs share their most mouthwatering recipes. Vogue website. https://www.vogue.com/article/sorghum-chef-recipes-health-benefits-gluten-free-rose-cafe. Published August 8, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2019.
2. All about sorghum. Sorghum Checkoff website. https://www.sorghumcheckoff.com/all-about-sorghum. Accessed December 11, 2019.
3. Sasaki T, Antonio BA. Plant genomics: sorghum in sequence. Nature. 2009;457(7229):547-548.
4. Whole grain sorghum. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, FoodData Central website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/595475/nutrients. Updated April 1, 2019. Accessed December 11, 2019.
5. Dykes L. Sorghum phytochemicals and their potential impact on human health. In: Zhao ZY, Dahlberg J, eds. Sorghum. Methods in Molecular Biology. Vol 1931. New York, NY: Humana Press; 2019:121-140.
6. Sweet sorghum — from stalk to syrup. Sorghum Checkoff website. https://www.sorghumcheckoff.com/news-and-media/newsroom/2015/12/01/sweet-sorghum%E2%80%93from-stalk-to-syrup/. Published December 1, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2019.
7. Sorghum syrup. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, FoodData Central website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/343958/nutrients. Updated April 1, 2019. Accessed December 12, 2019.
8. Sorghum flour. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, FoodData Central website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/542689/nutrients. Updated April 1, 2019. Accessed December 12, 2019.
9. Simnadis TG, Tapsell LC, Beck EJ. Effect of sorghum consumption on health outcomes: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2016;74(11):690-707.
10. Farrar JL, Hartle DK, Hargrove JL, Greenspan P. A novel nutraceutical property of select sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) brans: inhibition of protein glycation. Phytother Res. 2008;22(8):1052-1056.
11. Yang L, Browning JD, Awika JM. Sorghum 3-deoxyanthocyanins possess strong phase II enzyme inducer activity and cancer cell growth inhibition properties. J Agric Food Chem. 2009;57(5):1797-1804.
12. Shen RL, Zhang WL, Dong JL, Ren GX, Chen M. Sorghum resistant starch reduces adiposity in high-fat diet-induced overweight and obese rats via mechanisms involving adipokines and intestinal flora. Food Agric Immunol. 2015;26(1):120-130.
13. Delimont NM, Vahl CI, Kayanda R, et al. Complementary feeding of sorghum-based and corn-based fortified blended foods results in similar iron, vitamin A, and anthropometric outcomes in the MFFAPP Tanzania efficacy study. Curr Dev Nutr. 2019;3(6):nzz027.
14. Kajjura RB, Veldman FJ, Kassier SM. Effect of a novel supplementary porridge on the nutritional status of infants and young children diagnosed with moderate acute malnutrition in Uganda: a cluster randomised control trial. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2019;32(3):295-302.
15. Akomo P, Bahwere P, Murahami H, et al. Soya, maize and sorghum ready-to-use therapeutic foods are more effective in correcting anaemia and iron deficiency than the standard ready-to-use therapeutic food: randomized controlled trial. BMC Public Health. 2019;19(1):806.