Ten years ago, sorghum, an ancient gluten-free grain, rich in health benefits, was nearly non-existent on grocery store shelves. Now, sorghum is one of the top food trends of 2017. How did this grain known more for its use as a livestock feed, come roaring into the food spotlight?
Faith Smith, consumer communications strategist for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, said sorghum, an ancient grain from Africa, has made a name for itself.
“When I first started working for the checkoff three years ago, very few people knew sorghum as a whole grain food product,” Smith said. “Now, a large majority of consumers are beginning to learn about sorghum and its many applications as a food product.”
Sorghum’s rise in popularity is largely due to an increasing consumer demand for gluten-free, ancient whole grains. Doug Bice, Sorghum Checkoff market development director, said sorghum is all of those things.
“With this movement from plant base protein that we are seeing in the country,” Bice said, “the non-GMO movement, the gluten-free movement, the whole grain movement, and ancient grain movement, all those factors lend themselves perfectly to where sorghum checks all those boxes.”
Bice said sorghum has been in the food market for decades, but has been flying below the radar. The production of food-grade sorghum represents only three percent of the overall United States sorghum market share, with traditional uses such as livestock feed, feedstock for biofuel production and international exports utilizing the majority of the crop. However, farmers are growing this crop as they receive a premium when producing food-grade sorghum. That premium has risen within the last several years as the versatile grain finds its place on consumer grocery lists.
Focusing on the Consumer
It is not just the whole grain and gluten-free movements that have made consumers want to try this delicious, ancient grain. The Sorghum Checkoff, a national farmer-funded organization devoted to promoting and improving the crop through research and market development, is engaging consumers to teach them more about sorghum.
Smith, whose main role within the checkoff is to expand consumer awareness of the grain, said the Sorghum Checkoff created a consumer research plan to better serve the needs of consumers interested in food-grade sorghum.
“To get to where we are today, we tested a lot of different ideas through a consumer research study,” Smith said. “We tested various messages, imagery, graphic styles and logo types. Ultimately, through that research, we were able to narrow down what was most likely going to be effective and successful.”
Using the consumer research data, Smith said the Sorghum Checkoff began developing a brand to promote food-grade sorghum through online and outreach activities. At the heart of the brand, called ‘Sorghum: Nature’s Super Grain,’ is a website that was created based on consumer’s demands for information on the product.
“We solidified that consumers needed to know the basics – what sorghum is, how they can use it and what the health benefits are,” Smith said.
The website contains a collection of sorghum-based recipes, nutritional information, tips for how to cook sorghum, and most importantly, where to buy sorghum products.
Bice added that the Sorghum Checkoff wanted its food brand to be similar to other well-known commodity checkoff-funded campaigns, such as ‘Got Milk’ or ‘Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner,’ but had to find a way to do with a limited budget and staff.
However, the checkoff was able to maximize its resources and created a one-of-a-kind campaign that used industry tradeshows and expos, as well as other creative activities to inform new audiences about the benefits of sorghum.
“We had media dinners where we invited the media in to look at the different dishes we were preparing,” said Bice. “We did a number of recipe-type contests, and there are over 200 recipes [on the website] associated with sorghum. We worked very hard with our communications [department], and they did a wonderful job setting up the consumer base and the consumer facing website.”
Smith said sorghum continues to get attention from consumers and food media.
It is healthy, it is versatile, it is convenient to put into whatever dish you want. Faith Smith
“There has been a lot of push behind sorghum, so I think people are really interested in it from an ancient grain perspective and a whole grain perspective,” said Smith. “It is healthy, it is versatile, it is convenient to put into whatever dish you want. So, I think the media is truly seeing the value that sorghum has.”
In the Spotlight
In 2017, sorghum was recognized by many organizations and publications as one of the year’s food trends, including the Daily Record and the James Beard Foundation, calling sorghum the new “it grain” because of its nutritional and gluten-free attributes. Men’s Health, also recognized sorghum as a “powerhouse grain” filled with fiber and offering key minerals for bone health.
As sorghum becomes the new “it grain,” Smith, believes sorghum still has a long way to go.
“We are still climbing the mountain,” Smith said. “I think that if we keep pushing the way we are and we keep promoting sorghum’s benefits, sorghum will continue trending in popularity.”
- Sorghum is a versatile grain as it comes in many different forms. The main forms sorghum that is sold in stores is whole grain, pearled grain, popped sorghum, and sorghum flour. Sorghum can also come in granola bars, cereals and protein powders.
- Sorghum can be cooked as grain on a stovetop, a slow cooker, in the oven or in a pressure cooker. Sorghum is also great to precook and freeze for easy meals later on.
- Sorghum is a gluten-free whole grain that offers nutritional benefits such as protein, iron, vitamin B6, and Magnesium while being rich in antioxidants. Sorghum also offers lots of energy, perfect for anyone trying to get through the day.
- With 1 in 33 Americans having Celiac Disease or some type of gluten-intolerance, sorghum is the perfect substitute to certain grains.
- Sorghum uses 1/3 less water than comparable crops, helping reduce the usage of water.