Sorghum: A wheat substitute for gluten intolerant Cubans


Granma | 01 September, 2016

Sorghum is grown across ten provinces of the archipelago, with crops most concentrated in Las Tunas and Pinar del Río. Photo: Germán Veloz Placencia

If one considers that, with 25,000 varieties, wheat is the most widespread crop grown in the world, one begins to understand how difficult it is not to ingest it. Its main protein, gluten, has become one of the most abundant food components, especially in Europe and the United States.

According to Italian specialist Dr. Alessio Fasano in Clinical Guide to Gluten-Related Disorders, the average consumption of gluten in Europe is 10-20 grams per day, which can reach 50 grams or more.

Although not the only gluten-related disorder, celiac disease is the best studied. Described as a syndrome characterized by mucosal injury of the small intestine, the condition is controlled by following a lifelong gluten-free diet.

It is believed that in Cuba there are some 1,200 children and over 450,000 adults with the disease, but the diet they follow continues to be deficient, especially given that the condition is rarely diagnosed and the population has little awareness of it.


For just over a decade, the Center for Agricultural Research (CIAP) at Marta Abreu Central University of Las Villas has been advancing in obtaining gluten-free sorghum, to prevent the gastric imbalances and improve the quality of life of people with celiac disease and gluten-related disorders.

According to CIAP professor Orlando Saucedo, sorghum is used internationally in human food, along with corn, millet and rice, other cereals which are suitable for patients with specific dietary needs.

It is also worth noting the high zinc and iron content of sorghum. As a biofortified crop, it is used in the treatment of iron deficiency anemia and diabetes mellitus type 1. Among the other benefits of sorghum is its ability to fight free radicals, thought to cause cancer.

Professor Orlando Saucedo has devoted the past 30 years to studying sorghum. For the past 11 years, these efforts have been focused on the potential of this cereal for human consumption. Photo: Michel Contreras.

While the island has experimented with producing malts, beer and meat products using this cereal, the greatest achievement of the studies conducted by CIAP, located in Santa Clara, is the recent opening of the first Cuban bakery/patisserie aiming to produce sorghum products for those suffering from celiac disease.

Saucedo recalled that, on beginning research in this field, techniques developed in El Salvador, a leading sorghum producer, were employed. “The first food we produced using sorghum in Cuba was called mantecado, a sweet similar to pastry. We experimented to achieve our own formula, already used in over 70 recipes,” he explained.

According to the specialist in Plant and Seed Grain Health, the biggest motivation for the dozen CIAP researchers working directly with sorghum, is the opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of children with celiac disease. As such, they use the white UDG-110 variety, which is widely consumed in Mexico.


Beginning this August, nearly a dozen products, including crackers, breads and sweets, will be produced at the new bakery every two weeks and sold for the price of 21 Cuban pesos. While these will initially be sold to the fifty children with celiac disease in the province of Villa Clara, it is hoped that the subsidized products will later be made available to all families in need, extending the service to those with autism and diabetes. Iván Castañeda, manager of the new site, noted that they also hope to extend the experience to the rest of the country.

He explained that the facility is isolated and has been fully prepared to ensure its products are completely gluten-free, while CIAP will contribute in the threshing of the grain. He added that parents are grateful that their children will now be able to enjoy, for example, eating cakes and bread.

In this regard, Saucedo noted that sorghum must be threshed with highly specialized machines in order to produce flour. In addition to baked goods, sorghum can be used to make drinks, by roasting the grain, crushing it and then dissolving it in juice, soda or milk.

The efforts of CIAP in this field saw it presented with the 2015 National Award for Technological Innovation granted by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. Its research on sorghum has been extended through training and awareness meetings across ten provinces. Saucedo noted that these experiences have demonstrated that it is not only parents and children who should take an interest in these results.

The most rewarding moment for Saucedo to date, was meeting the father of twins with celiac disease in Sancti Spíritus, who hugged him and thanked him for his efforts.

Referring to the planting of this crop, the expert noted that Villa Clara has achieved an excellent grain quality for human consumption, while the provinces of Las Tunas and Matanzas are moving in the same direction. Growing sorghum requires high levels of hygiene, to ensure that no traces of other products are introduced along with the grain.

Villa Clara has established itself as a center for initiatives aimed at improving the quality of life of patients with special dietary needs. Photo: Michel Contreras.


Given Cuba’s need to sustainably increase grain production to contribute to food security, sorghum, which originates from tropical and subtropical regions of East Africa, has become an ideal crop for unproductive areas, given its resistance to heat and drought.

In 1989, CIAP worked to identify the best ways to produce sorghum in Cuba, but only for animal feed – although the crop has been grown in certain areas of the country since the 1970s. As Saucedo further clarified, sorghum cultivation began to spread in the 1990s, due to the introduction of a greater number of varieties on the island.

Of the 14 types of sorghum grown in Cuba, 11 are protected by CIAP. As one of the driving forces behind the center, Saucedo highlighted that the fundamental achievement has been to bring varieties from Mexico to the island, approved by agricultural sector authorities, and successfully hybridize them.

He explained, “Just as we possess the greatest number of sorghum types, we have the nine colors of the plant, logically associated with the chemical composition: levels of protein, carbohydrates, tannin, etc.”

Responsible for morphological and physiological studies, irrigation systems, hygiene and fertilization, CIAP’s work is divided into four groups: grains, animal production, plant health, and soil; dealing with protein content, crop yields, and agricultural cycles.

The island’s different varieties of sorghum, from white to red, also have different sizes, which have a direct bearing on the machinery required to process them. One of the most popular species is relatively small, thus not dependent on large machinery and easier to grind.

A comprehensive review of the statistics reveals that there are some 10,000 hectares of sorghum planted on the island in ten provinces, with most concentrated in Las Tunas and Pinar del Río. It is worth noting that sorghum crops are rotated with tobacco, and it has recently been shown that this improves the quality of fields. Similarly, large rice-growing areas of the island, such as Sur de Jíbaro and Los Palacios, plant sorghum when there is no rice.

Sorghum is used to feed monogastric livestock, and could contribute greatly to the feeding of pigs. Saucedo pointed out that in 2015 the National Pork Producers’ Group produced 12 tons of the grain as pig feed. Currently, Cuba imports some 300,000 tons of corn feed annually. He believes that part of these imports could be replaced through greater sorghum use and noted that the crop can be planted 12 months of the year, however, the best time is winter. Also, unlike corn, this is a perennial grain.

Specialist literature describes sorghum as providing secure harvests, protecting producers from losses. Saucedo pointed to the potential of sorghum in drought situations, as its roots extend 1.6 meters, escaping the sun.

On noting that the ideal temperature for this crop is 26 – 27 degrees Celsius, it is clear that Cuba offers a perfect climate for sorghum. While an average of 1,200mm of rain falls on the island each year, sorghum requires just 200mm. The only conditions the plant does not withstand are water logging and the crop can not be planted in mountainous areas.



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