Used principally for animal feed, food scientist Scott Bean and colleagues at the Agricultural Research Service in Manhattan, Kansas, are focusing on the kernels of food-grade sorghum, aiming to bring the gluten-free grain into mainstream foods products such as breads, biscuits, pizza crusts and noodles.
"We are working on identifying the chemical reasons behind why certain sorghum hybrids are of much better quality - crumb grain, texture of bread - than others," Scott Bean, lead researcher on the project told FoodNavigator.com.
The ARS researchers sent off a batch of nine US commercial and experimental sorghum hybrids to be tested at the University of Cork in Ireland. "The samples showed a big difference in the quality of bread - coarse versus fine texture for example. Once we have identified the chemical reason behind the differences, we can work on developing sorghum hybrids with new functionalities," added Bean.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that contributes to the viscosity of bread. But increasing numbers of consumers are showing an intolerance to the protein and in the US alone an estimated 1 to 2 million people are diagnosed with celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance.
While the gluten-free aspect of sorghum is a key thrust behind the ARS research, crop prices are also in the equation. Sorghum - also called milo - is a much cheaper crop compared to the record market prices currently in demand for wheat, soy and maize. If the technologists succeed in designing new characteristics for food formulations, the hardier sorghum crop could become a cheaper source for alternative ingredients to wheat, already the case for the animal feed market.
"In the current climate with a global shortage of grains Europe has bought in much more sorghum than in previous years," Julian Bell, an economist at the Home Grown Cereal Authority (HGCA) comments to FoodNavigator.com.
Europe this year imported 1.5 million tonnes of the grain, a figure that compares to last year's mere 12,000 tonnes. "Industries would rather import the higher quality maize crop but they are being charged higher duties for doing so, consequently they have opted for sorghum, that in fact has only a limited use in animal feed, that has less duties."
With approximately 60 million tonnes grown annually in the world, the easy to grow, resilient sorghum crop is primarily produced in Africa - 21 million tonnes - followed by North America with 16 million and Asia with 11 million tonnes. Europe has a meagre share with 700,000 tonnes in total grown, spread largely between France and Italy.
To date applications for the grain lie almost exclusively in animal feed and bioethanol, but the US department of agriculture funded ARS study is hoping to change all this. By studying the function of sorghum proteins, Bean aims to find cultivars that will lead to a good-tasting, finely-textured sorghum bread. Bean is working with collaborators from Ireland and Germany to see which food-grade varieties produce a winning bread. "Our long term goal is to force sorghum to produce a viscosity-like dough for bread," said Bean.