By Brent Bean, Ph.D., Sorghum Checkoff Agronomist

The vast majority of U.S. grain sorghum is either exported for international use as animal feed or used domestically for ethanol production. However, a growing use for sorghum in the U.S. lies within the consumer food industry. Over the last five years, the amount of sorghum used for human consumption has increased by more than 250 percent. Sorghum demand is growing by consumer choice because the grain is non-GMO (non-genetically modified organisms), gluten-free and high in antioxidants. Sorghum is also an excellent source of fiber, a good source of protein and has favorable sustainability factors for an eco-friendly environment.

Early Food-Grade Sorghum

Historically, sorghum used for human consumption was often ground into white, gluten-free flour for baking. As such, mills and end users demanded white grain sorghum that was free of plant pigment stains. The stains are produced from red or purple glumes, which are the two dry, leaf-like structures that surround the sorghum kernel. To meet this demand, the sorghum industry developed high-yielding grain sorghum with white grains and tan glumes. Food-grade sorghum also was required to contain very low or no tannins, as tannins have been shown to decrease protein digestibility and feed efficiency in both humans and animals. For this reason, over 20 years ago, the U.S. sorghum industry decided to eliminate tannins in all grain sorghum , not just in food-grade varieties.

Today’s Food-Grade Sorghum

Demand has changed over the years. Nutritionists, food service professionals and cooking enthusiasts alike recognize the human health benefits of sorghum’s high-antioxidant capacity and ability to fight obesity through slower digestion. Sorghum varieties containing tannins, which are typically high in antioxidants/polyphenolic compounds and dietary fiber, have even made a comeback due to consumer demand. Farmers are seeing markets develop for specialty sorghum of all colors, types and varieties. For example, Grain Berry’s Onyx sorghum, a black kernel that is high in tannins, is sold in a variety of whole-grain cereals. However, most sorghum hybrids sold in the U.S. still are non-tannin varieties. Today, consumers can find a wide assortment of sorghum food and beverage products on the market, including snack bars, syrups, pizza crusts and popped burgundy sorghum, with new products entering the market regularly.

Premium Price for Growers

On average, food-grade sorghum demands a $1.75 premium over sorghum sold on the open market for feed or biofuel. In wet, humid areas in the U.S., growers of traditional white grain food-grade sorghum should be aware of the higher risk of grain mold, caused by fungi infection during flowering and under prolonged periods of wet weather prior to harvest. Some food-grade varieties are more resistant to mold than others.

For more information, listen to our podcast episode about growing food-grade sorghum on “Sorghum Smart Talk”. The podcast can be found on your favorite podcast platform.