Grain Sorghum: The other white grain

by Teresa Acklin
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New white sorghum varieties in U.S.

      aim to increase consumption as food grain

   by L. Joshua Sosland

   Even though grain sorghum has been used for thousands of years as a food grain in most of the world, it is consumed in negligible amounts in the United States. But with the help of breeders and grain sorghum growers, a small company in Hereford, Texas, is trying to change all that.

   Three years ago, Jowar Foods, Inc. was established and dedicated to offering grain sorghum flour and products to consumers and food companies in North America.

   The new white grain sorghum varieties are central to the business plan at Jowar Foods, a company that was the brainchild of Frederick R. Miller, who has worked for the past 30 years as a grain sorghum breeder for Texas A.&M. University in College Station. Dr. Miller is research director and a member of the board of directors of Jowar Foods, and his son, Charles, is president of the company.

   In recent months, considerable attention has been directed toward prospects for success of hard white wheat varieties about to be released by Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, U.S. As observers try to surmise whether white wheat will widely replace hard red winter or whether it will be unable to catch on among growers, a parallel effort is under way among growers trying to introduce white varieties of grain sorghum.

   Grain sorghum producers are strongly supportive of efforts to break into the food grain market. “The food sorghum initiative is important to us to diversify our customer base,” said Timothy H. Lust, interim executive director, National Grain Sorghum Producers, Lubbock, Texas. “Half of the sorghum grown worldwide is produced for human consumption, but it's barely a blip in the United States.” Grain sorghum is widely consumed as a food grain in the Middle East, India and Africa. The areas where grain sorghum is used as a food grain are very arid parts of the world where rice and wheat cannot grow, according to Charles Miller of Jowar Foods.

   “Sorghum is very drought tolerant,” Mr. Miller said. “Because they could grow it, that's what they ate.” In the United States, grain sorghum ranks third behind corn and wheat among U.S. grains in annual production. More than 90% of domestic grain sorghum is used for animal feed but its use for purposes other than feed has been edging upward. In 1996-97 and 1997-98, use of grain sorghum for food, alcohol and industrial averaged about 930,000 tonnes, an all-time high and equating to about 7% of total domestic use. As recently as 1994-95, only 25,000 tonnes went into non-feed use.

   In comparison, about 50% of grain sorghum produced worldwide is used as a food grain, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1996-97 and 1997-98, world production of grain sorghum for food, alcohol and industrial use averaged about 30 million tonnes.

   While still a fraction of the 8.9 million acres planted for U.S. harvest in 1998, the 100,000 acres seeded to white grain sorghum this year represent a large increase from only 20,000 acres three years ago. “We're at a point where our numbers can increase in a hurry,” Mr. Lust said.

   The white varieties have the potential to account for as much as 25% to 50% of grain sorghum acreage in the next few years, he said. While they yield as well as red grain sorghum, the white varieties are not suited for weather conditions in the eastern sorghum belt, he said.


   Historically, grain sorghum has been at a disadvantage as a food grain in the United States because of a bitter taste and its lack of gluten. Earlier varieties contained not only phenolic acid, but actual tannins which gave grain sorghum an especially bitter and astringent taste, Mr. Lust said. While they still lack gluten, he said, new white varieties have completely eliminated the phenolic acid and the bitter taste.

   A small amount of U.S. grain sorghum is milled and used in food blends shipped overseas for aid programs. The efforts to develop white varieties of grain sorghum were applauded by Craig L. Hamlin, president of ADM Milling Co., the largest milling company in North America, with 30 mills and daily capacity of about 14,000 tonnes. “Whenever possible, we use white sorghum, and only use red or black sorghum when white is unavailable,” Mr. Hamlin said.

   Even before the new white varieties were introduced, food companies showed interest from time to time, according to Mr. Lust. Many processors were on the verge of major investments in grain sorghum in the late 1960s, when opportunities in wet corn milling captured their attention instead, he said.

   Economics may bring grain sorghum back to the attention of flour millers and bakers, Mr. Lust said. “The margins in the milling and baking industries are very small,” he said. “Grain sorghum prices offer opportunities to lower costs. Blended in small percentages, it is difficult to taste it in there. We see a future in multi-grain products where you already have a mixture of grains.” The new white varieties offer buyers more than simply an inexpensive filler ingredient, Mr. Lust said. With the phenolic acid missing, grain sorghum becomes very bland, which allows food processors to add flavors without having to worry about the taste of the grain, he said.

   Mr. Miller said that products from the new grain sorghum varieties have a slightly nutty flavor. “We have always been a country that eats wheat foods, but people are more willing to experiment with food than in the past,” he said. “That's why grain sorghum has the potential to become a bigger food grain.” Grain sorghum growers have yet to reach a consensus on what to name the new white varieties. Food sorghum or waxy sorghum are favored by some growers, while jowar, the Hindi name for grain sorghum, is preferred by Mr. Miller of Jowar Foods. Still others have suggested concocting a name that would distinguish the product further from red grain sorghum and the past history of bitter-tasting grain sorghum. In this idea, they suggest following the model of canola, which was the name developed in Canada for low-erucic acid rapeseed.

   In looking for buyers of grain sorghum flour in the United States, Mr. Miller said the first group targeted was persons currently in the United States who are from sorghum-consuming nations. “Many of these people like to maintain their traditions,” Mr. Miller said. “One of the great traditions of all cultures is food.” Several million people in the United States fall within the category of the company's initial target marketing group, he said, adding that the company had been successful in reaching this market. The company's lines of mixes, cereal and flour are distributed nationally by Dishaka U.S., based in Houston, Texas.

   In looking to broaden its reach, Mr. Miller said the company would focus next on the health food market. “One of grain sorghum's distinctive traits is that it is gluten free,” he said. “There are up to 10 million people in the United States who are allergic to gluten.”


   The most popular gluten-free grain is rice, Mr. Miller said, but in comparing the two grains, he noted that grain sorghum had certain advantages, particularly for baking. “It is difficult to get products from rice flour to develop a crust,” he said. “It usually burns first. Our flour forms an excellent crust on bread.” He said grain sorghum also offers the gluten-intolerant population a variety in diets that can become tiresome “if you have to eat rice three times a day.” Mr. Miller acknowledged that grain sorghum had the same drawbacks as other gluten-free flour, which is that it does not hold together well without binders such as xanthan gum.

   Progress in the health food market has been steady but slow, Mr. Miller said. He said he was encouraged by positive responses from gluten-intolerant groups around the United States. In addition, he said the company benefits from grain sorghum's inclusion on the approved grain list of the American Celiac Sprue Association, a national association of people who are intolerant of gluten.

   Whether the company will offer organic grain sorghum flour is still unclear, Mr. Miller said. “We have this year for the first time contracted with a farmer to grow several hundred acres of our hybrid sorghum organically,” he said. The farmer contracted to grow the grain sorghum has been organically certified, but the Jowar Foods grain sorghum mill has not. Mr. Miller said that once the farmer demonstrates that grain sorghum can be grown successfully and with the same milling characteristics as other non-organically produced grain sorghum, then the company would consider applying for certification.

   All of the grain sorghum ground into flour by Jowar has been produced by farmers contracted to raise one of several grain sorghum varieties owned by Dr. Miller. The white hybrids are also popular among grain sorghum growers who are not producing grain sorghum for Jowar Foods, Mr. Miller said.

   In looking at milling grain sorghum flour, the company decided to make a finer granulation than is typical elsewhere in the world, in areas where stone mills are used for grain sorghum milling. Instead, the company produces a 95-mesh flour that Mr. Miller says “is more like a western flour.” While he declined to detail the company's technology or milling capacity, he described the process as a combination of “off-the-shelf technology and a few tweaks that we made to produce a finer flour.” The mill is located outside of Hereford, Texas, near Amarillo in the Texas panhandle. He described the business as a “small, highly automated system” operated by a single worker with part-time help brought on as needed. The system has a packaging line capable of handling several bag sizes.

   Mr. Miller said the milling process for grain sorghum was largely like wheat flour milling, with a multiple reduction process, sifting and overages going back for further reduction.

   “I think it will take five years or so for sorghum flour to catch on as a mainstream product, but the way it will happen is as a mixing agent with other flours,” Mr. Miller said. “A good example is tortillas. Sorghum has been used in times of drought in Mexico to make tortillas.” According to Mr. Miller, grain sorghum flour can be mixed with masa as an extender. He said grain sorghum could be mixed in up to a 50% ratio with masa without affecting flavor or texture. “You can make tortillas out of 100% grain sorghum, but they won't taste like corn (maize) tortillas,” he said.

   Noting that maize prices are depressed, Mr. Miller said that as prices recover in the years ahead, the attractiveness of grain sorghum flour as a less expensive alternative to other products would boost sales, especially in Mexico. Grain sorghum prices recently were U.S.$67 a tonne in Kansas City, compared with maize at U.S.$73 a tonne.

   Jowar Foods also has begun approaching large baking companies and promoting grain sorghum flour as a specialty ingredient in variety bread and as a flour extender. The company currently has a single industrial customer, who receives 22.5-kilogram bags. The 11-kg bag is most popular with consumers, he said. “Our consumers use grain sorghum flour as a staple,” he said.

   Further potential is seen in Mexico, he said, where the company has sent several samples to cookie companies. Mr. Miller noted that Mexican cookies tend to be denser than their U.S. counterparts, and that grain sorghum flour may be an effective extender.

   L. Joshua Sosland is executive editor of Milling & Baking News, a sister publication to World Grain.

      Sorghum facts

   While sorghum is primarily used as a feed grain in the United States, about two-thirds of sorghum consumption worldwide is for food. It is a staple food for millions of people in India and Africa.

   Grain sorghum is similar in composition to maize, but is higher in protein and lower in fat content. It often is used to replace maize in feed. Grain sorghum products are similar to maize products but do not contain carotene, which is a source of vitamin A and pigmentation.

   For food, sorghums are ground into meal and made into porridge, bread or cakes. The grain is also used in making starch, dextrose, syrup, paste and alcoholic beverages.

   Grain sorghum grows best in warm conditions and is very resistant to drought and heat. Because of its superior adaptability to heat and water stress, sorghum is grown mainly where other grain crops cannot compete. More than half the world's sorghum is grown in the semi-arid tropics.

   The United States is one of the world's largest grain sorghum producers and exporters. U.S. sorghum production in 1998 was 13.4 million tonnes in 1998, down from 20.4 million tonnes in 1996. India also is a significant sorghum producer, with 14 million tonnes in 1998. Other key grain sorghum producers are Argentina, Australia, China, Mexico and Nigeria.

   The U.S. share of world trade in grain sorghum has not dropped below 70% in the last decade, according to the U.S. Grains Council, rising to 88% in 1996-97. Argentina, China, Sudan and Australia also are significant exporters. Japan and Mexico are the two major import destinations for grain sorghum, accounting for 77% of total world imports in 1996-97. Other importers are Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the European Union.