Today on the Nutrition Facts Podcast we take a look at a little known grain with a lot of personality.
Have you ever wondered if there’s a natural way to lower your high blood pressure, guard against Alzheimer's, lose weight, and feel better? Well as it turns out there is. Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, founder of NutritionFacts.org, and author of the instant New York Times bestseller “How Not to Die” celebrates evidence-based nutrition to add years to our life and life to our years.
You may have heard the expression “knowledge is power.” Well – today – we’re going to give you more power to control your diet and lifestyle – by giving you the facts. Welcome to the Nutrition Facts podcast. I’m your host – Dr. Michael Greger.
Today on the show – a little known grain – with a lot of personality: sorghum. How does sorghum compare with other grains in terms of protein, antioxidants, and micronutrients? Let’s find out.
Sorghum is “The Forgotten Grain.” The United States is actually the #1 producer of sorghum, “but it is typically not used to produce food for American consumers.” Instead, it’s produced mainly for feeding livestock, or as pet food, or even building materials. But it’s actually eaten as a staple in other parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa, where it’s been eaten for thousands of years, making it currently the fifth most popular grain grown after wheat, corn, rice, and barley, beating out oats and rye.
Because sorghum is gluten-free, because it can be deﬁnitively considered safe for people with celiac disease, we’re starting to see it emerge as actual human food in the U.S.; so, I decided to look into just how healthy it might be. Protein-wise, it’s comparable to other grains. But since when do we have to worry about getting enough protein? Fiber is what Americans are desperately deficient in, and sorghum does pull towards the front of the pack.
The micronutrient composition is relatively unremarkable; here’s how it rates on minerals, for example. Where sorghum shines is on polyphenol content. Polyphenols are plant compounds associated with reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, and even all-cause mortality. And if you compare different grains, sorghum really does pull ahead, helping to explain why its antioxidant power is so much higher.
Now, sorghum gets its grainy little butt kicked when it comes to fruits and vegetables, but in terms of compared to other grains, a sorghum-based breakfast cereal, for example, might have like eight times the antioxidants than a whole wheat-based cereal. But what we care about is not antioxidant activity in a test tube, but antioxidant activity within our body.
If you measure the antioxidant capacity of your blood after eating regular pasta, it goes up a little. If you replace 30 percent of the wheat flour with sorghum flour, it doesn’t go up much more. But if you eat 30 percent red sorghum flour pasta, the antioxidant capacity in your bloodstream shoots up like 15-fold. See, there are multiple types of sorghum. There’s black sorghum, white sorghum, and red sorghum. This is how they look in grain form (there’s evidently a yellow sorghum too). And red sorghum, and especially black, have like legit fruit-and-vegetable-level antioxidant activity.
The problem is, I can’t find any of the colored ones. I can go online and buy red or black rice; purple, blue, or red popping corn; and purple or black barley––but I can’t find red or black sorghum. Hopefully, someday. But you can find white sorghum for about four bucks a pound. Does it have any unique health-promoting attributes? It’s promoted as “…An Underutilized Cereal Whole Grain with the Potential to Assist in the Prevention of Chronic Disease.” But what is the effect of sorghum consumption on health outcomes?
An epidemiological study in China found lower esophageal cancer mortality rates in areas that ate more millet and sorghum, compared to corn and wheat. But that may have been more due to avoiding a contaminating fungus than from benefit in the sorghum itself. Though, it’s possible. Just as “oats are the only source of avenanthramides,” which give oats some unique health benefits, sorghum, even white sorghum, contain unique pigments known as 3-deoxyanthocyanins, which are strong inducers of some of the detoxifying enzymes in our liver, and can inhibit the growth of human cancer cells growing in a petri dish compared to red cabbage, which has just regular anthocyanin pigments. But, note that white sorghum didn’t do much worse than red or black, which have way more of the unique 3-deoxyanthocyanins. So, maybe it’s just a general sorghum effect. You don’t know, until you put it to the test.
Sorghum was found to suppress tumor growth and metastasis in human breast cancer xenografts. What does that mean? The researchers conclude that sorghum could be used as “an inexpensive natural cancer therapy, without any side effects…strongly recommend[ing] [the use of sorghum] as an edible therapeutic agent…possess[ing] tumor suppression…and anti-metastatic effects on human breast cancer.” But xenograft means human breast cancer implanted in a mouse. Yes, the human tumors grew slower in the mice fed sorghum extracts, and blocked metastasis to the lung, and did the same for human colon cancer. That, again, was in mice, which can’t necessarily be translated to how human cancers would grow in humans, since, for example, not only do these mice not have a human immune system, they hardly have any immune system. They’re bred without a thymus gland, which is where cancer-fighting immunity largely originates. I mean, how else could you keep the mouse’s immune system from rejecting the human tissue outright? But this immunosuppression makes these kinds of mouse models that much more artificial, and that much more difficult to extrapolate to humans.
And that’s a lot of what we see in the sorghum literature—in vitro data, like in test tubes and petri dishes, and rats and mice. There had just been this critical missing piece of the puzzle needed to link laboratory data to actual beneﬁts in humans. Missing, that is, until now.
Finally today, I share why sorghum is one of my favorite new grains.
“Despite playing a significant role in Africa and Asia as a staple grain, sorghum has only recently emerged as a potential…food source in the [U.S.].” And it’s not just a principal grain in many parts of the world, but evidently used in folk medicine traditions. What might its health benefits be? There has been some in vitro data from test tubes and petri dishes, and “in vivo” data, meaning “within the living,” in laboratory animals, but only recently have we started seeing human trials.
In one study, subjects were asked to eat sorghum pancakes versus corn pancakes for supper for three weeks, and both groups saw huge 20 to 30 percent drops in their cholesterol—but they were also all told to not eat eggs and other cholesterol-boosting foods; so, that may very well have been playing a role.
Another study tried biscuits. Those eating sorghum biscuits said they felt more satiated than eating wheat biscuits, but this didn’t translate to differences in intake at the subsequent all-you-can-eat meal. So, who cares what they subjectively felt if it didn’t cause them to eat any less? It’s no wonder, then, when you put it to the test, those eating sorghum versus wheat biscuits didn’t lose any weight, though the data’s a bit mixed. A recent study concluded that “sorghum can be an important strategy for weight loss in humans,” though the sorghum group didn’t actually lose more weight. But they appeared to be eating hundreds more calories a day, yet lost more body fat, perhaps because of their greater fiber consumption, or other goodies like resistant starch in the sorghum. The vehicle they used, though, an artificially-flavored, colored, and sweetened mixture of water, powdered milk, and either sorghum or wheat may be good research-wise, so you can make a blinded control, but it leaves you wondering what would happen if you actually ate the whole food.
The resistant starch is exciting, though. Most of the starch in sorghum is either slow-starch or fully resistant to digestion in the small intestine, which offers a banquet bounty of prebiotics for your good gut flora down in your colon. It’s not evidently the sorghum starch itself, but interactions with the proteins and other compounds that effectively act as starch blockers, inhibiting your starch-munching enzymes. Sorghum, then, ends up with the lowest starch digestibility among grains, which is why traditionally it was considered an inferior grain––but inferior in the sense of not providing as many calories. But not providing as many calories is a good thing in the age of epidemic obesity.
Give someone a whole-wheat muﬃn compared to a sorghum muffin containing the same amount of starch, and see significantly higher blood sugars 45 minutes to two hours later, and a higher insulin spike starting almost immediately. Overall, a 25 percent lower blood sugar response, and the body only had to release a fraction of insulin to deal with it—less than half!
Same thing with diabetics: lower blood sugar spike with a sorghum porridge, compared to grits, that the body can deal with, with a fraction of the insulin.
So, we need to educate people how healthy sorghum is and develop convenient tasty products? No, it’s already convenient and tasty just the way it is. One button press on my electric pressure cooker with two parts water, one part sorghum, and it’s done in 20 minutes. You can make one big batch and use it all week just like you would rice. But where’s the money in people eating the intact, whole grain? Instead, the industry is looking at sorghum for its enormous potential for exploitation into so-called functional foods and food additives––or, I mean, did you know adding sorghum to pork or turkey patties can decrease their cardboardy ﬂavor? And hey, why just eat it when you can instead use it to make gluten-free beer?
It’s funny: in How Not to Diet when I was talking about taxpayer subsidies to the sugar, corn syrup, oil, and livestock industry, subsidizing cheap animal feed to help make Dollar Menu meat, I jokingly asked when’s the last time you sat down to some sorghum? But hey, now that I know how good it is for you, maybe we should be taking advantage of the quarter billion we’re spending to prop up the industry and sit down to some sorghum after all.
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