South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced this week that it will collaborate with eight other African research organisations in a $17m project to develop a more nutritious sorghum cereal, reports the country's Business Day publication.
Africa grows more than 50 per cent of the world's sorghum, adapted to harsh climatic conditions, which is the dietary staple for more than half-a-billion poor people worldwide.
But it lacks important vitamins and minerals. According to the CSIR, the new research aims to boost levels of vitamins A and E, iron, zinc, and essential amino acids.
Growing more nutritious crops can significantly contribute to advances in combating diseases of the developing world.
In the West, amid recent high prices for corn and wheat, the resilient sorghum grain has been the focus of research to tease out new functionalities from this cheap, easy to grow food crop.
Used principally for animal feed by 'developed' countries, in a recent ARS (US government) study, food scientist Scott Bean at ARS in Manhattan, Kansas, investigated the kernels of food-grade sorghum, aiming to bring the gluten-free grain into mainstream food 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 recently told FoodNavigator.com.
While the gluten-free aspect of sorghum is a key thrust behind the sorghum ARS research, crop prices are also in the equation. Sorghum - also called milo - is a much cheaper crop compared to the record market prices recently witnessed 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.
On the back of high corn and wheat prices, in 2004 Europe imported some 1.5 million tonnes of sorghum, compared to a mere 12,000 tonnes during the previous year.