Japanese Consumers Find Culinary Inspiration in Sorghum

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Food grade sorghum is making a splash as a specialty, high-end product in Japan where health is often more important to consumers than price. But it hasn’t always been that way.

This growing marketplace was merely a concept in the early 2000s and has since begun to take off due to the efforts of the U.S. Grains Council Japan and the Sorghum Checkoff. Tommy Hamamoto, director of U.S. Grains Council Japan, said Japanese consumers became more health conscious in 2010 and began looking for new alternatives. That’s when the Council knew it was the right time to promote food grade sorghum.

“In our first phase of efforts we needed to increase people’s awareness of food grade sorghum,” Hamamoto said. “We created a short TV program based on our first trip to Texas and Kansas where we were introduced to research, visited a sorghum farm and watched a cooking demonstration.”

To accompany awareness efforts, U.S. Grains Council Japan began participating in industry targeted food shows to gain interest from food companies. Elevating efforts even further, the Council hosted their first sorghum food focused program and invited sorghum leadership to jumpstart initiatives.

The program included various speakers, a celebrity chef and a recipe contest that ended in success. Florentino Lopez, Sorghum Checkoff executive director, said the effort was targeted and began the process of sharing the potential of sorghum as a healthy food ingredient.

“Sorghum Checkoff leadership saw the Japanese marketplace as a potential opportunity that could lead to success long term and producer profitability,” Lopez said. “So we partnered with the Council to help share more of sorghum’s story. Markets evolve over time but we knew a long-term commitment, robust plan, steady pressure and out-of-the-box thinking would help establish demand for sorghum.”

Now in the second phase of efforts, U.S. Grains Council Japan has created a sorghum specific food website —www.sorghum.jp, gained Erica Angyal as a spokesperson of Healthy Sorghum Life and established an extensive campaign to bring sorghum to Japanese consumers.

“Products from pancakes to pasta are becoming a reality. We are also seeing creative alternatives to common foods like salmon rice balls using sorghum,” Lopez said. “Sorghum is seen as a healthy, fresh alternative that provides a wealth of attributes from high fiber to beneficial antioxidants.”

With sorghum’s uses now expanding to numerous product lines and recipes using flour and grain, chefs in Japan are also taking notice of its versatility.

“When chefs fry something using sorghum flour, it makes it crispy and has a pleasant texture,” Hamamoto said. “Grain sorghum is very puffy but soft when you cook it, and it is very unique. Those characteristics stimulate food professionals.”

Initially, the market was very limited and Hamamoto said it was difficult for Japanese consumers to find sorghum products. Awareness of sorghum and its unique health attributes was also low, but things are beginning to change.

“Now we ask consumers about it, and they say ‘ah, I heard about it, I saw sorghum somewhere,’” Hamamoto said. “Now I think it is important to provide even more information about sorghum so that consumers would take the second step and try it for themselves.”

While Japanese shoppers are currently consuming several hundred tons of food grade sorghum per year, Hamamoto said he hopes the market will expand 5-10 times in the future. To achieve this goal, he said they will continue targeting their two main segments ? those with celiac disease and those seeking healthy products.

Given Japanese food trends, consumers are always looking for something new and innovative to satisfy their palettes. Lopez said Grains Council Japan has captivated these consumers by promoting sorghum in unique ways that have proven to be helpful in more ways than one.

“Japan’s experiences in promoting sorghum as the smart choice has given us insight in developing our own unique push for sorghum into the U.S. food industry,” Lopez said. “While we are still some time away from saying efforts in Japan have been a total success, we can say it has and will impact the future of sorghum, nonetheless.”