By: Kay Ledbetter

Texas A&M AgriLife sorghum research may be known for its development of sorghum for animal feed and energy sectors, but cereal eaters across the nation are learning about its contributions to healthier human foods.

Dr. Bill Rooney in field with box of GrainBerry cereal
Bill Rooney, Ph.D., looks at the back of a box of cereal that features the Onyx sorghum variety he bred as a part of Texas A&M AgriLife’s efforts to meet the needs of the food industry. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

“We were targeting the health-food market when we developed the black grain sorghum hybrid Onyx in 2012,” said Bill Rooney, Ph.D., AgriLife Research sorghum breeder and Borlaug-Monsanto Chair for Plant Breeding and International Crop Improvement in the Texas A&M University Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, College Station.

The Onyx hybrid was licensed to Silver Pallet Inc., which spent several years in seed increase and commercial production on the Texas High Plains before featuring the product in their Grain Berry cereals.

“Texas A&M AgriLife is working to improve the quantity and quality of food production to benefit human health and ultimately lower health care costs,” said Patrick J. Stover, Ph.D., director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research and vice chancellor and dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Dr. Rooney’s research is a great example of how we can enhance the nutritional quality of the food supply to help manage chronic diseases by targeting quality end-points with human nutrition in mind.”

Increased public interest in antioxidants

The cereal boxes highlight the Onyx connection, marketing it as an “all-natural new sorghum grain developed by Texas A&M University, based on ancient black and hi-tannin sorghum varieties that, together in one plant, contain a more powerful combination of antioxidants that combat a whole spectrum of free radical threats to our bodies.”

part of the back of a cereal box
Texas A&M AgriLife’s sorghum breeding work is featured on the back of the cereal box, outlining the nutritional qualities of Onyx sorghum. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

Rooney is known for his conceptualization and development of bioenergy sorghum hybrids – sorghum is considered to be the leading feedstocks for the bioenergy industry.

But as the general public becomes more health conscious, growing attention is being directed at his new and novel sorghum types for specific and unique markets.

Based on research conducted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Cereal Quality Lab, Rooney knew sorghums with dark colors and tannins have higher concentrations of antioxidants. As such, in developing the Onyx sorghum hybrid, he selected for those types to meet the growing public interest in finding foods with high antioxidant capacity.


“This was the first material we licensed with that characteristic,” he said. “We licensed a new hybrid to Silver Pallet last year, Onyx2, and increased seed production this year. It will be grown commercially next year.”

Onyx2 has the same components but provides better yields for production purposes, Rooney said. He said an issue with the original Onyx was its yield potential was lower than commercial grain sorghum hybrids.

“We were able to increase the yields about 25% from the first hybrid to the second,” he said.

Human nutrition market

Rooney said his program will continue to reach the human nutrition market with new hybrids.

“We are working with some specialty grain types, looking at new combinations of characteristics such as grain color, tannin concentration and endosperm characteristics,” he said.

muffins made with Grain Berry cereal
Muffins made with Texas A&M AgriLife-bred Onyx sorghum cereal were served at the recent AgriLife Extension sorghum field day. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

The higher tannins are reaching the same market as the Onyx, Rooney said, because they have increased antioxidant values. Specific grain colors are for the specialty food market and are valued for the inclusion of specific compounds associated with natural preservatives.

“The grain source of these natural preservatives, however, is unique because most of the time these natural preservatives are sourced from fruits and vegetables that require processing to extract the compounds,” he said. “The sorghum requires less processing to access and stabilize the useful attributes.”

The other area of research, waxy endosperm sorghums, has the most marketing potential and interest for producers, Rooney said.

“Inclusion of these hybrid characteristics can affect industrial, food and livestock feed applications, because the starch is modified and is easier to process or digest,” he said. “Ethanol can be made faster; livestock can digest the grain faster; and it is easier for human food processors to use.”