Fonio: Nutritional and Health Benefits of a Hidden Cereal

5 Mins
October 12, 2017

Hello! I am Bezalel Adainoo, the author of Stay Well Now. My friends call me Bez. As a professional food scientist, I have been asked many questions by people from different walks of life seeking the right information on what food to eat and how that will affect their health.

Fonio (also fonyo) is arguably the oldest cereal in Africa. Known as acha by Ghanaians and po tolo by the Dogons of Mali, fonio has other common names including hungry rice, hungry millet, afio, pini, fundi millet, hungry koos and others. Fonio is grown mainly in West Africa, with Guinea being the main cultivator of the crop and consuming it as a staple. It is also grown in the Northern part of Ghana and other parts of the Sub-Saharan region. Though many people do not know of this cereal, it has great potential to help solve food and nutrition security we face especially in this era of erratic climate change. This hidden cereal, in 2014, was described by The Guardian as “the grain that would defeat quinoa among foodies” and “the next quinoa in America”.

Fonio grows fast, germinating within a week after planting and ready for harvest in 2 to 4 months after germination, and does well in different soil conditions. It even grows in soil conditions considered too poor for sorghum, pearl millet and other cereals (sandy soil and other soil conditions). Yet, this cereal is packed with great nutritional and health benefits which will be examined in detail in this post.

Varieties of fonio

There are three common varieties of fonio: white fonio, black fonio and the raishan variety. White fonio is the most common variety of the fonio varieties. In Ghana, Yendi and Chereponi are the main fonio farming communities; they mainly cultivate white fonio. Black fonio is grown in Nigeria, Niger, Guinea, the northern part of Togo and Benin, Mali and Ghana. The raishan variety is grown in India where flour is used to make bread.

Black Fonio
White Fonio

Nutritional and Health Benefits

The health benefits of every food commodity are hinged on the components that are in the food and fonio contains many components with great nutrition and health significance. Fonio contains a good amount of dietary fibre, protein, minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium, and vitamins such as folic acid and vitamin B3. Fonio is also low in calories, fat and sodium.

Dietary fibre

Fonio is a cereal with a low carbohydrate content and a high fibre content. White whole fonio contains about 20% more fibre than the black whole fonio. Averagely, boiled fonio contains 58% and 68% more fibre than boiled brown rice and oatmeal respectively, with a 100-gram serving of boiled fonio providing 9 – 10% of the recommended intake of fibre for an adult (17 years and older) as opposed to 7% and 6% from boiled brown rice and oatmeal respectively. Due to its relatively high fibre content and the low-calorie content, fonio has a low glycaemic index. This means the body absorbs it slowly so it doesn’t cause spikes in blood sugar levels when you consume it. This also makes fonio a more suitable cereal for diabetics. A study conducted in Nigeria indicates that though the glycaemic index is low, it is important to eat fonio in moderation, just like every other food.

Also, the high fibre content of fonio helps it to aid in digestion. The carbohydrates in fonio are easy to digest and the fibre allows the food to move easily through the digestive system.

Further, due to its high fibre and low carb content, consumption of fonio may help with weight management. This is not to say fonio burns fat; there’s no study to support that.

(Related: 4 Simple Ways to Manage your Weight in your Kitchen)

Protein and amino acids

Proteins are important nutrients the body needs for proper growth and development. Proteins are made of amino acids and there are 9 essential amino acids (9 amino acids that need to be supplied to the body through food). Fonio, unlike many other cereals, contains good amounts of these essential amino acids with the exception of one (lysine).  The quality of these amino acids in fonio is higher than the amino acids in rice, wheat, maize and other cereals. The quality of 4 of the essential amino acids in fonio is nearly 100%. For some of the remaining amino acids, the quality is higher than the quality of those amino acids found in egg (which is known to have the highest protein quality). Combining legumes (such as groundnuts, soybean, cowpea, Bambara groundnuts, etc.) with fonio would increase the protein quality of the diet to be equal to that of egg if not more. This is possible because legumes are rich in lysine, which fonio lacks.

Additionally, fonio is a good source of methionine and cysteine (sulphur containing amino acids) which are known to play important roles in skin, hair and nail health. Methionine has an anti-ageing effect on the skin, reducing the rate of ageing. Methionine helps to avoid hair loss and strengthens nails. Cysteine helps wounds to heal and keeps the skin healthy. Research shows that cysteine may have a role in detoxification.

(Related: To Detox or not, the Facts)

Fonio does not contain gluten proteins. Hence, it is a good choice of cereal for people who have celiac disease (an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack gluten as if it is a bacterium and could lead your body digesting itself). 

(Related: Gluten Free Diet Helpful or Not)

Minerals

Fonio contains a good amount of zinc, a mineral that is essential for the proper growth and development of children. Even when it is boiled, fonio contains more zinc than maize. Fonio also contains a good amount of iron. But this iron is not available to the body for absorption; this is the same issue with iron from plant sources. Iron from plant sources are available for the body to absorb only when you consume that food together with another food that supplies vitamin C. The vitamin C comes to change the iron in fonio, or any other plant source, to a form that the body can absorb and use.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 30% of the world’s population have iron deficiency anaemia. Accompanying fonio (and other plant sources of iron like kontomire, spinach, beans, etc.) with vitamin C rich food (like oranges, bell peppers, pawpaw, strawberries, etc.) could help reduce the statistics on iron deficiency anaemia across Africa and the rest of the world.

Vitamins

Fonio is an excellent source of folic acid. Folic acid is an important vitamin that is needed by the body for brain development. It is an essential vitamin for pregnant women. Folic acid helps to prevent neural tube defects in unborn children. Also, folic acid helps develop emotional health and prevent depression. Fonio contains vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6 which are important for normal body functions.

Fonio is packed with nutrients, making it very nutritious and a healthy cereal, even more nutritious and healthier cereal than some common cereals like rice and oats. Get yourself some fonio and try it. You will love it! Don’t forget to share this with your friends and also tell us about your experience after trying it.