Sorghum is an ancient cereal grain that originated in parts of Africa and Australia more than 5,000 years ago! The sorghum plant, a member of the grass plant family called Panicoideae, still provides nutrients and much-needed calories to impoverished populations living in these areas. In fact, it’s considered the “fifth-most important cereal crop grown in the world,” according to the Whole Grains Council, and the third most important within the United States. (1,2)
Because of its versatility as a food source, animal feed and bio-available fuel, today sorghum grain is widely grown in the U.S. One of its growing commercial uses is in the gluten-free flour space, where it’s both included in store-bought flour blends or sold on its own as sorghum flour.
Why Sorghum Flour Makes a Great Addition to Recipes
Sorghum is an ancient, 100 percent whole grain kernel that is ground into a fine flour that can be used in various ways for cooking and baking. While historically it’s taken a backseat in the U.S. to grain alternatives and sandwich substitutes like corn, quinoa or potatoes, the growing knowledge of gluten sensitivities and the gluten-free diet trend in recent years have now brought sorghum flour into the spotlight.
Sorghum flour — which is beige or white in color, considered to be “sweet,” softly textured and mild-tasting — is now a popular ingredient found in many health food stores and large supermarkets. While it’s still hard to find 100 percent whole grain sorghum grains in most stores, most well-stocked major grocery stores now sell gluten-free flour blends, including sorghum flour, that are convenient, healthy and perfect for baking and other uses.
Sorghum Flour Nutrition
Like other whole grains, sorghum (which has the scientific name Sorghum bicolor L. Moench) is impressive when it comes to its nutrient content, adding a good dose of protein, iron, B vitamins and dietary fiber to recipes. Sorghum flour is also surprisingly high in antioxidants like phenolic compounds and anthocyanin, which help reduce inflammation and lower free radical damage.
1/4 cup of sorghum flour has about:
- 120 calories
- 1 gram fat
- 25 grams carbohydrates
- 3 grams fiber
- 0 grams sugar
- 4 grams protein
- 110 milligrams phosphorus (10 percent DV)
- 1.68 milligrams iron (8 percent DV)
- 1.1 milligrams niacin (6 percent DV)
- 0.12 milligram thiamine (6 percent DV)
5 Benefits of Sorghum Flour
1. Gluten-Free and Non-GMO
Sorghum is an excellent substitute for wheat flour, and sorghum flour makes a great baking ingredient for anyone who cannot tolerate gluten. While the protein gluten can cause digestive and other health issues for many people — including bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, headaches and other symptoms — gluten-free sorghum flour tends to be easier to digest and tolerate.
Aside from avoiding gluten, there’s another important benefit to using sorghum flour over wheat flour and certain gluten-free blends: avoiding genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). Unlike corn and some wheat crops, sorghum grains are grown from traditional hybrid seeds that combine several types of sorghum grasses. This is a natural method that has been used for centuries and does not require biotechnology, making it nontransgenic (non-GMO food) that doesn’t come with the same risks. Why is this an important point? Genetically modified foods are now being linked to worsened allergies, learning disabilities, digestive issues and inflammation.
2. High in Fiber
One of the biggest benefits of eating whole grains is that they retain all of their dietary fiber, unlike refined grains that are processed to remove parts like their bran and germ. Sorghum actually doesn’t have an inedible hull like some other grains, so even its outer layers commonly are eaten. This means it supplies even more fiber, in addition to many other crucial nutrients, and has a lower glycemic index.
High-fiber foods are important for digestive, hormonal and cardiovascular health. The high fiber content of sorghum flour also makes it “stick to your ribs” longer than some other refined flours or flour substitutes, so you experience less of a “crash” after eating recipes made with sorghum.
3. Good Source of Antioxidants
There are several types of sorghum plants, some of which are high in antioxidants that are tied to reduced risks of developing cancer, diabetes, heart disease and some neurological diseases. Antioxidants are found in anti-inflammatory foods, and they help scavenge free radicals that, when left uncontrolled, can lead to inflammation, aging and various illnesses. Sorghum is a rich source of various phytochemicals, including tannins, phenolic acids, anthocyanins, phytosterols and policosanols — which means sorghum and sorghum flour might offer similar health benefits as eating whole foods such as fruits.
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Argicultural Food Chemistry found that anthocyanin antioxidants are present in black, brown and red sorghum grains. (3) Antioxidant activity and pH stability were found in sorghum at levels three to four times higher than certain other whole grains. Black sorghum is especially considered a high-antioxidant food and had the highest anthocyanin content of all in the study.
Sorghum grains also have a natural, waxy layer that surrounds the grain and contains protective plant compounds, such as the type called policosanol, which research suggests has positive implications for cardiac health. (4) Policosanols have shown cholesterol-lowering potential in human studies, sometimes even comparable to that of statins! The policosanol present in sorghum flour makes it a potential cholesterol-lowering food.
Other research shows great potential for phenolic compounds found in sorghum to help with arterial health, fighting diabetes and even preventing cancer. Mainly located in the bran fraction, phenolics result in the plant having substantial antioxidant properties and non-enzymatic processes that help fight pathogenesis at the root of many diabetic complications and cell mutations.
4. Slowly Digested and Balances Blood Sugar
Because sorghum flour is low on the glycemic index, plus high in starch, fiber and protein, it takes longer than other similar refined-grain products to digest. This slows down the rate at which glucose (sugar) is released into the bloodstream, which is particularly helpful for anyone with blood sugar issues such as diabetes. Sorghum also helps fill you up and prevents spikes and dips in blood sugar levels that can lead to moodiness, fatigue, cravings and overeating.
Impressively, certain varieties of sorghum brans that have a high phenolic content and high antioxidant status have been shown to inhibit protein glycation, which suggests that they can affect critical biological processes that are important in diabetes and insulin resistance. (5) One study conducted by the Department of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Georgia suggests a nutraceutical rationale for human consumption of sorghum as a natural way to lower diabetes incidences through better control over glycation and other diabetes risk factors.
5. Helps Fight Inflammation, Cancer and Heart Disease
Eating a whole foods-based diet that is high in available phytochemicals is consistenly linked to better protection from common nutrition-related diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease and obesity. So it’s no surprise that epidemiological evidence suggests that sorghum consumption reduces the risk of certain types of cancer in humans compared to other cereals. (6) The high concentration of anti-inflammatory phytochemical antioxidants in sorghum are partly responsible, as is the high fiber and plant-based protein content, all of which make it a potential cancer natural remedy.
Sorghum contains tannins that are widely reported to reduce caloric availability and can help fight obesity, weight gain and metabolic complications. Sorghum phytochemicals also help promote cardiovascular health, which is critical considering that cardiovascular disease is currently the leading killer in the U.S. and “developed world” in general!
History of Sorghum and Sorghum Flour
Sorghum, also sometimes referred to in studies as sorghum bicolor (the plant species), has been an important food source for centuries. The plant is considered durable, yields high amounts when harvested and stands up to heat well, making it a valuable crop in times of droughts. This is one reason why grains like sorghum have been staples for poor and rural people for thousands of years, especially those living in tropical regions like Africa, Central America and South Asia. (7)
The earliest known record of sorghum comes from an archaeological dig site at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, dating back to about 8,000 B.C. After originating in Africa, sorghum grains spread through the Middle East and Asia via ancient trade routes. Travelers brought dried sorghum grains to parts of the Arabian Peninsula, India and China along the Silk Road. Many years later, the first known record of sorghum in the United States comes from Ben Franklin in 1757, who wrote about how the grains could be used to make brooms!
Sorghum goes by many names around the globe: milo in parts of India, guinea corn in West Africa, kafir corn in South Africa, dura in Sudan, mtama in eastern Africa, jowar in other areas of India and kaoliang in China. Historically, aside from being grown to make edible sorghum grains or flour, the grain has also been used to make sorghum syrup, (also called “sorghum molasses”), animal feed, certain alcoholic beverages and even energy-efficient biofuels.
Around the world, some of the ways that sorghum is commonly consumed is to make leavened and unleavened flatbreads called jowar roti in India, porridge eaten for breakfast or couscous served with dinner in Africa, and a flour used to thicken stews in parts of the Pacific Islands. Sorghum is also used to make both various fermented and unfermented beverages or simply consumed as a fresh vegetable in some areas of the world.
Aside from its culinary uses for human consumption, sorghum is also considered an important livestock feed in the U.S., not to mention it has promising eco-friendly uses for providing sustainable and natural energy. In recent years, sorghum’s use in the ethanol market has grown rapidly, with estimates showing that today about 30 percent of domestic sorghum is now going to ethanol production. (8)
How to Use Sorghum Flour
Look for 100 percent sorghum flour that hasn’t been bleached, enriched or refined. Ground sorghum flour can be used just like other gluten-free grains to make homemade baked goods like bread, muffins, pancakes and even beer! In the United States, it’s becoming more common to find sorghum flour in store-bought or commercially sold gluten-free baked goods, but making your own is always the best option. This lets you cut back on preservatives, sugar and any artificial thickening agents that are commonly used in packaged products.
When making recipes that call for wheat flour (such as when you’re baking cakes, cookies, breads and muffins), unbleached sorghum can be added or substituted for part of the regular flour or gluten-free flour blends. On top of providing nutrients and more fiber, an added benefit is that unlike some gluten-free flours (like rice flour or corn flour, for example), which can sometimes be crumbly, dry or gritty, sorghum flour usually has a smoother texture and a very mild taste. It’s easy to incorporate some into sweet recipes or to use a small amount to thicken stews, sauces and other savory recipes.
Most experts recommend adding between 15 percent to 30 percent sorghum flour to your recipes to replace other flours (like wheat flour). Using 100 percent sorghum isn’t usually the best idea because it won’t rise as well as lighter flours. It works best when combined with other gluten-free flour like rice or potato starch. You’ll likely get the best results if you start with recipes that use relatively small amounts of flour in general, like brownies or pancakes, for example, rather than muffins or bread.
Keep in mind that without gluten to “bind” together ingredients and add to the texture of recipes, it’s a good idea to incorporate a binder such as xanthan gum or cornstarch to add “stretch.” You can add 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum per cup of sorghum flour for cookies and cakes, and one teaspoon per cup for breads. Adding slightly more oil or fat (such as coconut oil or grass-fed butter) and extra eggs to recipes prepared with sorghum blends can improve the moisture content and texture. Another trick is to use apple cider vinegar, which can also improve the volume of doughs made with gluten-free blends.
Sorghum Flour Recipes
Sure, you can make gluten-free brownies using sorghum flour, but why not keep things interesting and try making some traditional recipes that stem from around the world? Take inspiration from places like Africa and the Middle East where savory breads, breakfast “pudding,” couscous and tortillas are all made with sorghum flour.
Here are several ways to get started with using sorghum flour at home:
- 1 cup gluten-free flour (use 15 percent to 30 percent sorghum flour)
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup coconut milk
- 1 scoop vanilla whey protein powder (optional)
- 1/2 cup berries or applesauce
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Stevia to taste
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- Maple syrup
- Mix all ingredients (except coconut oil, syrup).
- Heat coconut oil or butter in a skillet over medium heat. Scoop batter into pan and cook until bubbles form through the batter (about 3–4 minutes).
- Flip the pancakes and cook another 3–4 minutes.
- Lightly drizzle with grade B maple syrup and serve.
Are There Any Side Effects or Concerns with Using Sorghum Flour?
While sorghum is definitely a major step up from eating refined grain products, keep in mind that grains of all kinds are not best for everyone. For many people, eating grains (and beans, legumes, nuts and seeds too) is problematic when it comes to digestion and can contribute to disease-causing inflammation. One reason is that all grains naturally contain “antinutrients” that block some of the grain’s minerals and vitamins from being absorbed and utilized properly.
One way to overcome this challenge partially is to sprout grains. A major benefit of sprouting is that it unlocks beneficial digestive enzymes, which make all types of grains, seeds, beans and nuts easier on the digestive system. This also helps increase beneficial flora levels in the gut so you experience less of an autoimmune type of reaction when you eat these foods.
Even after sprouting sorghum or other grains, it’s best to have them in small amounts and to vary your diet. Get your nutrients, carbohydrates, fiber and protein from a variety of sources like vegetables (including starchy veggies), fruits, grass-fed animal products, probiotic foods and raw dairy products.
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