This is part of a series on some of my favourite whole foods – things I consider kitchen staples and use often in my recipes. I hope you get to discover something fun and new about them!
I've been using sorghum quite a bit in the kitchen lately - a lovely neutral to mildly sweet tasting grain with a delightful chewy texture. Gluten free, and packed full of B-group vitamins - which are necessary for energy production and often become depleted during times of stress.
Sorghum is a gluten free cereal grain hailing from Africa, but widely grown across India, China, the United States and Australia. It is the fifth most important crop in the world, superseded only by wheat, rice, maize and potatoes. Collectively these five crops provide for more than 85% of global dietary energy intake [1, 2].
Sorghum is thought to be indigenous to Egypt, and was perhaps one of the first wild plants to be domesticated and utilized as food for humans and feed for livestock. Carvings found in Egyptian tombs indicate it was an important crop as far back as 700 BC . Today, it is a staple food for most of the Horn of Africa .
Botanically, it is a genus of plants in the Poaceae (grass) family, and considered a variety of millet. It is a particularly valuable grain as it is so incredibly resistant to drought and heat. It will spring back to life even after the most adverse of conditions .
Sorghum is as versatile as it is resilient. It is widely used as livestock feed, in alcohol products (particularly beer), and even in industrial products such as adhesives, waxes and dyes [1, 4].
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Cooking with Sorghum
Cook the grains whole, or use the flour in gluten free baking. In fact, I feel it is the closest in taste and texture to wheat than other gluten free flours. It looks a bit like Israeli couscous, but has a slightly chewier texture. I find it absorbs water more so than other grains, so needs a greater water to grain ratio and a longer cooking time. Well worth the wait, mind.
Sorghum has a particularly high starch content (approximately 70%) . Consequently, hot or boiling water is needed to create a dough from the flour, as dough prepared with cold water will not be as adhesive and therefore difficult to roll thin. For example, Indian Jowar roti (sorghum flatbreads) are prepared by mixing sorghum flour with just hot water and salt, the elasticity of the starch giving them great flexibility and softness.
You can also pop sorghum grains like corn. Try it! Use a large pot, and heat it on high over the stove. Sprinkle in some sorghum grains and stir with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat right down once they start to pop, then enjoy with a sprinkle of sea salt.
Sorghum – a gluten free grain
Sorghum is indeed a gluten free grain, safe for consumption for those with sensitivities . Other gluten free gains/flours include amaranth, buckwheat, chia, corn, potato starch, quinoa, rice, millet and teff.
Sorghum is approximately 10% protein, and is a rich source of the B-group vitamins. Some varieties of sorghum have a yellow-endosperm, which contain beta-carotenes, the pre-cursor to vitamin A.
Sorghum contains 7g of dietary fibre per 100g, most of which is the insoluble fibre, cellulose, however, it also contains some beta-glucan  – a prebiotic fibre found in other plant foods such as oat and barely. Beta-glucans are known to effectively reduce cholesterol.
Sorghum is also relatively high in the minerals iron and phosphorus, and contains varying amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and zinc [2, 6].
A realistic serving size of whole grain sorghum would be about 50g (1/4 cup) – raw (remember it swells in size once cooked).
Anti-nutrients in Sorghum
As with most grains, there are nutritional inhibitors inherent in sorghum that impair the bioavailability of the minerals it contains. These inhibitors are concentrated in the outer bran. They include phytic acid and digestive enzyme inhibitors (specifically against amylase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down starch).
However, soaking in water can help to neutralise these inhibitory effects, particularly when a splash of either lemon juice or apple cider vinegar is added, as a slightly acidic pH helps facilitate the process. Fermentation can further reduce anti-nutrients.
Much of the science to date has been conducted on darker (pigmented) varieties of sorghum that are perhaps a bit more uncommon or inaccessible to us as a food source (the commercially available variety we have access to at the present is the sweet white sorghum). Additionally, much of this literature has been conducted on animals, whilst information on how the plant’s phytochemicals may benefit humans remains scarce.
However, it is interesting nonetheless as it seems to be a trend that the grain is a powerhouse of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Packed full of antioxidants & Anti-inflammatory compounds
Sorghum species are well known for their antioxidant content – which is much higher than in other grains, and more stable than those in fruits . 3-deoxyanthocyanidins are related to anthocyanin pigments, and are just one type of antioxidant found in the sorghum bran. It has been found that 3-deoxyanthocyanidins are toxic to human cancer cells . Sorghum seeds produce this pigment in response to pathogen attack. The bran of both black and brown sorghum grain have been found to have significantly greater antioxidant activity than blueberries .
Furthermore, the leaf sheaths of varieties of dye sorghum have been found to have an anthocyanin content 90 times greater than levels typically reported in fruits and vegetables .
A 2010 animal study found that extracts of black and sumac varieties of sorghum bran exerted significant anti-inflammatory effects, correlating with their phenolic content and potent antioxidant activity .
How to use sorghum:
- Use sorghum flour as a gluten free alternative to wheat in baking. For best results, combine it with another gluten free flour such as buckwheat, quinoa or rice
- Boil the whole grains in ample water till soft and serve with stewed fruit as a breakfast porridge
- Cook the whole grains in vegetable stock or water, then fold through fresh herbs and roasted vegetables for a well-rounded salad
- Pop whole sorghum grains, dry or with oil, in a large pot for a healthy snack (they look like miniature popped corn)
I have used sorghum in a few of my recipes recently, you may like to give them a whirl:
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World Watch Institute. (2011). Africa’s indigenous crops.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the Untied Nations. (2017). Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/ag/agp/agpc/doc/gbase/data/pf000319.htm
Vinall, H.N., Stephens, J.C., & Martin, J.H. (1936). Identification, history, and distribution of common sorghum varieties. Technical Bulletin, 506.
Awika, J.M., & Rooney, L.W. (2004). Sorghum phytochemicals and their potential impact on human health. Phytochemistry, 65(9), 1199-1221.
Coeliac New Zealand Incorporated. (2015). Gluten free grains/flours. Retrieved from http://www.coeliac.org.nz/eating-gluten-free/gluten-free-grains-flours
USDA National Nutrient Database. (2016). Full report (all nutrients): 20067, sorghum grain. Retrieved from https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/6531?n1=%7BQv%3D1%7D&fgcd=&man=&lfacet=&count=&max=50&sort=default&qlookup=sorghum&offset=&format=Full&new=&measureby=&Qv=1&ds=&qt=&qp=&qa=&qn=&q=&ing=
Shih, C-H., Siu-On, Ng, R., Wong, E., Chiu, L.C.M., & Lo, C. (2007). Quantitative analysis of anticancer 3-Deoxyanthocyanidins in infected sorghum seedlings. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 55(2), 254-259.
Kayode, A.P.P., Nout, M.J.R., Linnemann, A.R., Hounhouigan, J.D., Berghoferi, E., & Siebenhandl-Ehni, S. (2011). Uncommonly High levels of 3-Deoxyanthocyanidins and antioxidant capacity in the leaf sheaths of dye sorghum. Journal of Agricultural and food Chemistry, 59(4), 1178-1184.
Burdette, A., Garner, P.L., Mayer, E.P., Hargrove, J.L., Hartle, D.K., & Greenspan, P. (2010). Anti-inflammatory activity of select sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) brans. Journal of Medicinal Food, 13(4), 1-9.
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