Q. Why is good, genuine, old-time sorghum molasses almost unobtainable? I got some at a health food store and it was awful!

A. Sorghum molasses--actually a syrup because it is not a byproduct of sugar crystallization--has been manufactured in the United States for well over 150 years. It is now a rarity because of the availability of the cheaper foreign cane sugar.

During World War II, sorghum syrup-making saw a revival. It was blended indiscriminately with other syrups and sold at premium prices. That practice continues, especially in Mississippi and Alabama, where some "sorghum blends" selling for up to $18 per gallon contain no sorghum.

The Food and Drug Administration, which concerns itself first with adulteration affecting health, has done little to protect the public and the honest sorghum growers and blenders.

Because there are few knowledgeable customers, sorghum syrups--both pure and blends--vary from pure, honest syrup to a scorched, bitter facsimile to 100 percent adulterated products.

If boiled to a syrup without care (100 gallons of juice makes 12 gallons of syrup), the green juice obtained by squeezing the six-foot-high stalks will produce a dark, bitter product. This is probably what happened with the sorghum syrup you bought. The juice contains a lot of suspended starch, which is prone to scorching, especially when made with antiquated equipment.

The sorghum picture may brighten in the future due to the efforts of Dempsey Broadhead and other agronomists at Mississippi State University and the USDA's Center for Subtropical Fruit and Vegetable Research in Weslaco, Tex. They have developed new varieties whose juice is low in starch.

They have not done this to put more jars of good, genuine syrup on grocery store shelves, though. Instead, these new varieties will be planted during sugar cane's off season, thus keeping the mills working year round instead of eight months a year. Eventually they will also serve as a source of this nation's production of ethanol, part of gasohol.

Leonard Maasdam, a 78-year-old sorghum syrup producer in Iowa, has more information about sorghum growers and syrup producers (Lynnville, Iowa 50153; 515-594-4369). He has just completed a tour of the South, seeking out others like himself and reporting improprieties to each state's department of agriculture.