If you read food labels, you’ve probably been seeing a lot of sorghum listed, especially in gluten-free baked goods such as pretzels and crackers. You may have wondered what it is—just another starchy filler that happens to be gluten-free?…or maybe something with actual nutritional value?

Happy to say, it’s the latter—sorghum is an age-old grain that’s a staple food in parts of Africa and Asia. It’s gluten-free, highly nutritious (as long as you’re eating the whole grain), and happens to be getting trendy. In fact, including sorghum among the whole grains in your diet is healthy. Sorghum is a good source of protein, iron and fiber. Studies suggest that sorghum may have a nutritional edge over other whole grains. For instance, research shows that sorghum…

  • Is better than other grains at regulating blood glucose and insulin response, important not just for people with diabetes but for everyone. (University of Arkansas)
  • Has more antioxidant phytochemicals than other grains. In fact, the antioxidant properties of sorghum are similar to those of fruits. Note for weight watchers: Sorghum’s antioxidant tannins help inhibit weight gain. (Texas A&M University)
  • Promotes heart health. The waxy outer layer of sorghum contains policosanols, compounds that are present in other grains but in much smaller amounts. Policosanols reduce total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol while increasing HDL “good” cholesterol. In fact, research suggests that policosanols may be more effective than statin drugs.

Want to add more sorghum to your diet? Many processed foods that are purposely made gluten-free, such as cereals, pretzels and crackers, are made with it. But while the nutrient-rich outer hull of sorghum grains is edible and is not always removed for processing, processed food is still processed food—typically loaded with added salt and sugar. So if you really want to incorporate the goodness of sorghum into meals, opt for whole grain. It’s best to stick with regular whole grain sorghum rather than “pearled” sorghum, which has the bran (outer layer) and some of the germ removed. Pearled sorghum cooks faster and is softer when cooked, but you won’t be getting all of sorghum’s nutritional benefits.

Sorghum has a mild earthy taste that can be somewhat sweet. Cook whole sorghum the same way you’d cook rice…and use it the same way you’d use rice as a side dish and in salads, casseroles, soups and stir-fries. Whole-grain sorghum can also be popped like popcorn—just heat in a little oil on your stovetop. The popped kernels are smaller and softer than popcorn, but they taste nearly the same. Substitute whole-grain sorghum flour for other flours in recipes for breads, pancakes, muffins and cakes. And if you’re a beer drinker, try sorghum beer—it’s made with sorghum in place of wheat and/or barley and is gluten-free. Tasty varieties include Bard’s Beer and Dogfish Head Tweason’ale.

However, even if they contain sorghum, you won’t improve your health by going on a diet of beer and pretzels. Sorry!