“GF Foods: The Potential of Sorghum”

Interview with Mr. Tetsuo Hamamoto/Japan Director, Ms. Michiyo Hoshizawa/Program and Administrative Manager, U.S. Grains Council - Japan office

The U.S. Grains Council develops export markets for U.S. barley, corn, grain sorghum and related products, including ethanol and distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS). At least 90% is used for animal feed; but with the rise and interest in healthy diet options, efforts are being made to promote the use of barley and sorghum as foods.

Q: What are some specific examples of your activities to promote the use of these grains as food?

Barley’s healthy effects have been featured in the media recently, causing awareness of barley to grow. The Council has been backing this growing awareness with exhibits at events and tours of U.S. barley-growing regions.

Grain sorghum, on the other hand, was introduced over ten years ago, but its time has yet to come. Wheat allergy awareness is low and demand, if it exists, is limited. Nonetheless, allergy incidents are becoming increasingly common and there is growing recognition of the need for allergy countermeasures. Over the last year alone, GF (gluten free) as a nutritional therapy has burst into the limelight in Japan. With the increase in health-conscious consumers who care about antioxidants and intestinal health and its appeal to the aging market, the advantages of whole grains and their gluten-free characteristics are attracting attention. Awareness of sorghum kibi (kibi means millet in Japanese language) appears to have increased significantly. Nevertheless, action to boost diffusion is only just starting. We are marketing sorghum aggressively at events such as trade shows and seminars under the name “sorghum kibi” with the hope that the name will penetrate the market. In January of this year, the publisher Shufunotomo Co., Ltd published its first recipe book using sorghum, “The White Sorghum kibi Recipe Book,” so we are already making headway. Other marketing efforts include getting sorghum onto hotel buffet menus and staging tasting events at cake ingredient stores. We are also using the Internet and SNS in a multi-pronged approach.

Q: What is "sorghum kibi"?

It originated in Africa and is an ancient grain that has been cultivated since 8,000BC. There are said to be thousands of varieties. This is a grain with diverse uses in different countries. It is used as a staple food in Africa and India, but in America and Japan it is mainly used as livestock feed. In China, it is used as raw material for alcoholic drinks. The white sorghum kibi that the Council is promoting is a food-grade grain variety that has been improved upon in America.

When many people hear the word “kibi” they keep their distance, expecting bitterness or an odd flavor. However, the bitter and astringent flavors have been eliminated from white sorghum kibi. It is white, mostly flavorless and odorless and very easy to eat compared to other grains. If you use it to make pancakes, for example, people won’t taste the difference between its flavor and regular pancake flavor. The odd flavors common in whole grains aren’t present in sorghum kibi and it is indistinguishable from polished grain. Consequently, you are able to get the nutrients, dietary fiber, minerals and antioxidants of a whole grain without tasting the difference.

Rice flour is gaining traction in Japan as a gluten-free ingredient and sorghum kibi’s texture feels similar to wheat flour, so blending rice flour with sorghum kibi flour can produce breads and cakes closer to the wheat flour versions than 100% rice flour can. As I mentioned earlier, even as a whole grain, sorghum kibi does not have any odd flavors and can be used as a high nutritional value flour. It is also filling and satisfying. It includes resistant starch, which has become a hot topic lately, so a small amount can produce a feeling of satiety. Work is in progress on other varieties as an approach to future food shortage.

Another advantage is that this crop is environmentally friendly. It only requires one-third of the water of ordinary grains. Having originated in Africa, it is strongly heat resistant and does not require irrigation.

Q: What do you think about the future of the gluten free market in Japan?
Many people associate gluten free (GF) with weight loss dieting, but there is no research linking it to weight loss yet. In America, many young people in their 20s and 30s see GF as a healthy lifestyle and dietary regimen. The majority of buyers are oriented towards health and natural lifestyles. Interestingly, we hear that 56% of buyers of GF foods have no connection to allergies or similar conditions.

Foreign visitors to Japan are expected to increase leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. We hear that even if hotels don’t go as far as putting gluten free and halal options on the menu, they are preparing to meet individual food requests from guests and looking for suppliers of such foods. There are not many places that have gone as far as developing gluten free menus, but our impression is that many hotels and establishments are starting to think about it. The U.S. Grains Council aims to spread sorghum kibi to be generally available in supermarkets by 2020.