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A gluten-free opportunity for Kansas sorghum

posted Oct 8, 2011, 12:07 AM by Puneet Goyal

All-purpose flour isn’t so all-purpose for everyone.

Gluten — a natural protein found in barley, rye and, most notably, wheat — presents a chronic health challenge for people with celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance, causing bloating, diarrhea and other far-ranging reactions.

While celiac disease is believed to affect one in every 133 Americans, it’s been a largely unknown and undiagnosed condition in the United States, said Mary Schluckebier, executive director of the Celiac Sprue Association.

That’s beginning to change. The gluten-free diet is one of today’s top food trends.

“Person-to-person contact with people who have celiac disease or some other food allergy has probably brought in more of the ground-swelling of information and interest in the diseases,” Schluckebier said.

Her members are helping to build a gluten-free market that is already bringing in more than $2.5 billion a year, according to the market research company Packaged Facts.

A market of growth
U.S. retail sales of gluten-free foods and beverages (in billions of dollars):

* Projected
Source: Packaged Facts
Credit: Donna Vestal/Harvest Public Media

That market might not mean much for wheat, Kansas’ biggest grain crop and celiac’s kryptonite. But it’s an opportunity for another big Kansas crop, sorghum.

The Sunflower State is the country’s leading producer of sorghum, also known as milo, which has been coming on in recent years as an alternative for longtime gluten-free staples like potato starch and rice flour. As a heat and drought tolerant crop, sorghum is ideal for the open plains of Kansas and Texas.

But the gluten-free market isn’t a slam-dunk for Kansas sorghum farmers.

Out in western Kansas, Ben Cramer has successfully grown red sorghum for animal feed and ethanol. Three years ago he began converting acres to white sorghum, which is more appealing for baking food. Plus, it brings in more money.

“We’re projecting hopefully to be in that 50 cents to a dollar premium,” Cramer said as he prepared for harvest on his 450 white sorghum acres in late September. “And that’s fairly significant, and so taking a couple hours to clean out my equipment once or twice a year is well worth it.”

To sell grain that is gluten-free, farmers must take special care to avoid contamination. That includes thoroughly cleaning farm equipment before harvesting and handling the grain.

“If we can encourage more people to grow the food-grade sorghums and grow them in a way that keeps them contamination free I think there is a potentially high market,” said Schluckebier, with the celiac association.

Cramer for one is moving full steam ahead. He plans to build grain storage next year to house his food grade sorghum. That’ll keep the crop contaminant-free and give him more control as he looks for potential markets.

Still, there’s not exactly a groundswell of Kansas farmers turning to food grade sorghum. Sorghum acres in the state, and across the nation, are actually down from two years ago. And only a small part of that goes to food production.

Research chemist Scott Bean is looking to change that with lab and field research aimed at improving sorghum’s functionality as a food source.

“A lot of what we know about sorghum proteins we have sort of assumed from what we know about corn proteins, and we’re finding out that some of those assumptions are wrong,” Bean said.

Sorghum flour is dry and crumbly, and it doesn’t have any of the natural chewiness found in wheat flour. So currently, sorghum is used as a blend with other gluten-free flours and additives to mimic the properties of all-purpose flours.

Bean’s team of U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists at the Center for Grain and Animal Health Research in Manhattan, Kan., is trying to bring more flexibility to sorghum flours – with the big end goal of a fully functional white sorghum flour to replace wheat flour.

“Ideally it’d be targeted for the celiac market so that they could produce a little higher quality foods than what you can now.” Bean said. “You can make some pretty good foods from sorghum but making like a loaf of bread from a cake batter type system is just a lot different than making it from a true dough.”

Bean noted that sorghum has long been a major food staple in Africa and India, where it’s often used for a porridge, flat bread or beer. The U.S. trails only Nigeria in world sorghum production, but holds the top spot in exports.