Sorghum at center stage in new convenience food products

Chef Paul Burkholder took a keen look at sorghum when researching ancient grains for some new product offerings by Furmano’s a few years ago. Burkholder is the company’s corporate research and new product development chef.

“I was looking at what we need to do to kind of expand a product line to fit into where we were as a company already,” he said. “So much of what we do is based off of the land and, really, products that are pretty good for the soil itself.”

Furmano’s is a 100-year-old company headquartered in the heart of Pennsylvania’s farming country. According to their website, since 1921 family-owned Furmano’s has produced delicious, wholesome foods and are most well-known for their tomato and tomato products. They have cultivated relationships with local farmers to source the produce they require for their products.

Going into grains made sense for Burkholder as he looked at food industry trends and where things where headed.

“We’re definitely going to have a push towards needing more whole grains as being part of what that carbohydrate piece of a meal was going to be and trying to keep that as healthy as possible,” he said.

Burkholder, at first, wasn’t heading down a path of gluten-free necessarily, but it became a big push just because of where the market was going and many people were starting to steer themselves away from gluten. Sorghum is naturally gluten free and non-GMO.

“But a carbohydrate certainly is a big part of any diet,” he said. “I mean, that’s part of what is wonderful is they’re just yummy and delicious.”

The quinoa and faro grains were easy to gravitate towards, but Burkholder wanted the new line to be a little bit more diverse. He started looking at barley and bulgar, among others.

“I came across sorghum and before I dug into it, I really liked kind of all the different aspects of it,” he said. “It’s very drought resistant. It just had a lot of good pieces of growth to it, but then the nutritional side of it was very good with the B vitamins that it carries with it and the phytochemicals that are all part of it.”

Burkholder brought some sorghum in and cooked it up and began experimenting.

“They had such a nice texture to them,” he said. “They just kept their bite no matter what.”

The sorghum has what Burkholder would describe as a corn flavor with a nice bite. An underlying sweetness fills out whatever your eating it with.

“And because it has such good texture, it really was adding your crunch notes to things that maybe necessarily didn’t have, like a crunch to it without it being like an actual like crunch, crunch,” he said.

For him, sorghum seems to be an up and coming grain that fits nicely in the food industry in the future. It fit the need for a plant-based protein offering.

“I thought it was a good time for us to jump into and kind of grab that and we’re going to add to the line,” he said. “And then just after that line opened up, we looked at kind of expanding to those to-go cups.”

Burkholder believes the texture sorghum provides along with the nutrient profile helps make it perfect for what they’re doing.

“It really fits kind of the direction that we were trying to take those and being plant forward and really offering a complete meal in such a small serving size,” he said.

Ancient grains line

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According to Yvonne Derr, product marketing manager for dry beans and ancient grains at Furmano’s, they launched Ancient Grains in pouches to food service companies in 2020.

“And of course food service completely shut down,” she said. “So we put it into high gear and we have a research and development department and a new product development department who basically was like okay, we need to adapt and revamp very quickly because there is there isn’t as much food service right now.”

Consumers were looking at more pre-portioned, individually packaged items. Furmano’s tasked Burkholder and his team to develop three recipes to fit this need. He came up with chickpea chili with tomatoes, poblano peppers and sorghum; farro with sun-dried tomato; and sorghum with apples and brown sugar.

“One of them was farro based, the other two were sorghum-based, and we put them into single-serve microwavable cups,” she said. “Really as food service picked up again the Ancient Grains started to really pick up again, so they’ve really gained some footing in food service.”

The cups are a brand new launch, sold both in food service to non-com or settings like a college and university.

“Those are some of our key targets. Vending anywhere, anytime, you grab and go,” she said. “And then convenience stores, retail outlets, grocery stores, that type of thing.”

Some are under private labels, and larger batches are sold through food service companies to restaurants.

Derr said they liked the addition or sorghum to the line because of it’s potential for growth.

“Sorghum, we added because it was definitely up and coming,” she said. “Quinoa is a little bit more established in the marketplace. People are familiar with it. Farro was starting to really take off and sorghum there we definitely saw potential for growth but it wasn’t as mainstream right as the other the other grains.”

But sorghum was a really good compliment for most all of the Furmano’s products.

“Almost all of our products are plant based. They’re basically—tomatoes, beans and ancient grains,” she said. “So they complement each other and they are a very nutritious plant-based option.”

Burkholder agrees. Those who picked these products up during and coming out of the pandemic, have found they add more diversity to their menus.

“Sometimes they even just fill in a space that they had something else in that have a short supply on,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of good reception on that.”

So far they’ve had a good response to the products, and Burkholder was recently at a college university show showcasing their items, and had people trying the sorghum, apple and brown sugar one.

“(They’d) send people over for (them) to try later on because of just how it was oatmeal, kind of,” he said. “You bite into it and you got a little bit more a different flavor than what it gives you.

Derr said with that flavor it’s possible to have it for breakfast or even dress it up as a dessert. Besides the flavor offerings, these products offer ease of cooking compared to other grain options. Quinoa is a quick cook, but with faro and sorghum, there’s a little more time involved.

“It’s going to take a long time to get into the consistency that you want,” she said. “So we decided that pre-cooked really takes the labor out, speeds things up. In the cups, because they’re designed for single serve, they’re obviously ready to serve, but in the pouches that we did, that’s kind of new to the market.”

Restaurants don’t have the labor to prep in the back of house like they once did, and these ready-made grains are less labor intensive.

“You drain them, you rinse them, you put them on a salad or you put them in a soup,” she said. “They’re ready to go. They’re completely cooked.

Derr and the rest of the staff at Furmano’s follow trends very closely and have begun to target specific areas for distribution.

“There are certainly areas that are not as into grain bowls or may not know as much about the ancient grains yet and the nutritional value attached to them. Most of what we find is that there are definitely concentrated areas California loves them. New York City loves them on the East Coast.”

Ancient grain popularity is growing as a whole, and Derr has her reasons as to why.

“I think it’s because people were very into sustainable products and that’s always been a part of who we are—is sustainable farming and sustainable products,” she said. “It’s kind of part of our story. But I think they’re just really catching on.”

Burkholder sees the same.

“I think probably part of the reason I brought it in is because it has such a unique flavor and mouthfeel to it that it’s one of those things that you can add into a dish and bring out a different character than what you’d be expecting out of other things,” he said. “And I think that’s where sorghum really stands out.”

For more information about Furmano’s visit

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].