Fonio: What it is, Characteristics and Benefits of the Ancient Cereal

Fonio: What it is, Characteristics and Benefits of the Ancient Cereal

What is fonio?

Fonio  is an ancient cereal of African origin that is grown in rural Senegal and other areas of the continent, recently made a comeback for its nutritional profile and because of its cultivation technique, which could be a solution to combat famine and drought. In Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and Togo, fonio was traditionally reserved for chiefs and royalty and consumed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan or at celebrations such as weddings and baptisms. Despite its rich cultural heritage and nutrient profile , fonio has always been considered a neglected and underutilized crop species to this day.

Traditionally, fonio crops were even referred to as “lost crops”, ” minor crops “, or “orphan crops”, and for this reason have not been studied extensively, and largely grown by small farms for the needs of restricted communities. However, fonio is among the oldest cereals used by humans for their food and it seems that as early as 5000 BC it was cultivated in Africa.

The two types of fonio

Fonio is a grain that belongs to the  millet family . There are two main types:

  • Digitaria exiles. This white bean grows from Senegal to Chad, as well as in central Nigeria. It is the more commonly consumed of the two varieties and more readily available outside of Africa.
  • Digitaria iburua. This white wheat has black or brown spikelets and grows mainly in parts of Nigeria, Togo and Benin.

The rediscovery of the ancient cereal

Today fonio is considered a real priority crop for West Africa, which is also making itself known in the West, although its consumption is mainly niche. Thanks to its nutritional and environmental properties, as well as the need to diversify one’s diet, it can be found in aisles and specialty ethnic food shops, or in the best-stocked organic shops.

The renewed interest in this super grain has its concrete reasons. On a nutritional level, the main characteristics it boasts are that it is a gluten -free cereal , therefore suitable for coeliacs and people intolerant to gluten; to contain four times the proteins , three times the fibers and almost double the iron compared to brown rice , to have a low glycemic index , and therefore to be suitable in a diet followed by people with diabetes ; as well as being a mine of mineral salts (iron, magnesium , calcium and zinc).

Fonio: nutritional profile

In addition to being naturally low in cholesterol , sodium and fat, 50 grams of dry fonio contains:

  • Calories : 190
  • Protein: 3 grams
  • Sugar :  0 grams
  • Fat: 0.6 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 40 grams
  • Fiber: 4% of the daily requirement
  • Iron: 4% of the daily requirement

Fonio is a good source of   B vitamins , including thiamine , riboflavin , and niacin , which are required for cell growth, development, and function , as well as energy production. In terms of food, i.e. as a use in the kitchen, it is comparable to the more common rice . Compared to other cereals, however, it contains more carbohydrates and less fat .

Another advantage is the richness of mineral salts such as  calcium, magnesium, zinc and  manganese . It also contains good percentages of iron and essential amino acids , such as methionine and cystine, necessary for our body which is unable to produce them. Iron and copper help form red blood cells , connective tissue, and blood cells , while zinc plays a role in immune function, protein synthesis , and cell growth and division.

Beneficial properties of fonio

Source of amino acids of vegetable origin

Fonio is a good addition to the diets of people who do not eat enough animal-based or high- protein foods . Although its protein composition is comparable to that of white rice , fonio boasts significantly higher amounts of the sulfur- containing amino acids , methionine —critical for skin elasticity , hair growth , nail health, and nail growth and repair. body tissues- and cysteine, a non-essential amino acid required for protein synthesis and detoxification. It also plays a role in the formation of the amino acid  taurine . Both of these amino acids are lacking in grains such as corn , wheat, rice, sorghum and barley . With the exception of lysine , a typical serving of fonio can meet approximately 10% of an adult’s daily requirement for essential amino acids .

Digestible and beneficial for the intestine

Fonio is consumed in its entirety and is therefore considered a whole grain. Unlike refined grains where the germ and bran are removed during processing,  whole grains  include all three parts of the kernel: bran, endosperm and germ. Whole grains may aid weight management and gut health , regulate intestinal transit, and reduce the risk of colorectal  and stomach cancer .

Low glycemic index

Fonio contains  resistant starch , which resists digestion and absorption in the small intestine . Resistant starches have many health benefits and may play a role in increasing insulin sensitivity and lowering blood sugar levels. Additionally, this cereal has a low glycemic index , which means it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels quickly. For this reason, it can be added to the balanced diet followed by people with diabetes.

Gluten free

Fonio is a naturally gluten-free grain , therefore it is safe for people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease , eliminating the symptoms of bloating , irritable bowel , nausea and fatigue , typical of intolerant individuals when eating foods that contain gluten, a group of protein found in wheat, barley and rye .


How is fonio used in cooking?

Fonio is extremely versatile in the kitchen, even if not yet known. When cooked, it easily absorbs the flavors and aromas of the foods it is prepared with. In West Africa, fonio is traditionally cooked as couscous , made into a porridge , and used fermented for making local beverages. Like other grains, it can be ground into a flour and used in baked goods , such as breads , cookies, and cakes. Here are some cooking ideas.

  • Substitute fonio for any grain, including rice, couscous, millet, sorghum, quinoa , and barley.
  • Use it in porridge in the same way you would use oats .
  • Add it to soups and stews.
  • Sprinkle it in salads .
  • Use fonio flour in baked goods such as breads, cookies, cakes and candy bars .


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