Fonio Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Fonio

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman  

Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is an ancient cereal grain that has been cultivated in West African countries for over 5,000 years. Also called acha, it is the tiniest grain in the millet family and a main source of nutrition for more than 3 million people.

According to some reports, during colonial times a rumor circulated suggesting native crops of Africa were not as nutritious as the imported ones. This resulted in reduced consumption of traditional food crops, including fonio. In fact, fonio almost disappeared from the urban food diet except for in a handful of West African countries. It began to see a resurgence during famines in the late 20th century.

The grain is the size of a very small seed, reminiscent of a cross between couscous and quinoa that quadruples in size once cooked. Fonio provides fiber as well as B-vitamins, zinc, and magnesium, making this versatile grain a nutritious addition to your diet.

Fonio Nutrition Facts

The following nutrition information, provided by the USDA, is for 1/4 cup (45g) dry pearled fonio, which yields 1 cup cooked.

  • Calories: 170
  • Fat: 0.5g
  • Sodium: 0mg
  • Carbohydrates: 39g
  • Fiber: 1g
  • Sugars: 0g
  • Protein: 2g

Carbs

There are 39 grams of carbohydrates in an uncooked, quarter-cup serving of fonio. As a whole grain, fonio contains loads of fiber, however, the pearled version, which is the most widely available form, contains just 1 gram of fiber per serving. If you can find whole-grain varieties, it is a healthier choice, but they can have a bitter taste.

Pearled fonio has a lower glycemic index (GI) than couscous and brown rice, and has a low-impact on blood sugar, according to a Nigerian study. Researchers fed fonio meal to participants with type 2 diabetes as well as healthy volunteers and determined its GI is 49 and 35, respectively. For comparison, brown rice has a GI of 50 and couscous has a GI of 65.

The GI is an estimate of how carbohydrate foods affect blood glucose levels on a scale of 1 to 100; the higher the number, the more the food raises blood sugar levels. Foods with a GI less than 55 are considered low glycemic and a GI greater than 70 considered high.

Fats

​Similar to other grains, fonio is very low in fat and only contains 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

Protein

One serving of fonio provides 2 grams of protein.

Vitamins and Minerals

Not a lot of large scale research has been done to assess the vitamin and mineral content of fonio. According to USDA data, fonio provides 0.72mg of iron or about 4% of your daily recommended intake. Some brands that sell fonio also report that the grain provides a small amount of calcium and phosphorus.

Health Benefits

Research regarding fonio is very limited. But there have been a few studies indicating that the grain may provide certain health benefits, although evidence is not strong.

May Improve Diabetes Management

In 2018, researchers evaluated a nutritional cracker made from pigeon pea and fonio. Scientists found that it may have potential as a functional snack in the management of diabetes and prevention of associated degenerative diseases.

However, it is unclear whether the pigeon pea or the fonio provided the benefit or if it was the combination of both that made the crackers beneficial. Similar studies have not been conducted.

May Aid Thyroid Function in Some

Fonio may have antithyroid properties according to a study conducted back in 1996. Researchers found that flavonoids extracted from fonio had potent antithyroid properties. People with certain conditions, such as Graves disease take medications with antithyroid properties to block the formation of thyroid hormone by the thyroid gland. But not everyone would benefit from this effect and it may be harmful in some.

The 1996 study was cited by authors of a 2017 research review who suggested that the flavonoids in fonio can affect many parameters in thyroid cancer, including cell proliferation, invasiveness, and differentiation. Authors of a third study on fonio noted that more studies need to be conducted on the potential thyroid toxicity of flavonoids contained in the seed.

May Protect Cells

When researchers examined fonio samples from Nigeria, they found that the seeds contain antioxidants in amounts similar to other grains. Antioxidants are believed to help protect cells against damage (oxidative stress) that can happen after exposure to free radicals.

Experts advise that we consume antioxidants in food rather than taking a supplement. However, the study authors noted that the ability of fonio to neutralize free radicals was poor relative to green leafy vegetables.

Provides Gluten-Free Nutrition

Those with celiac disease or who avoid gluten to manage other conditions can use fonio safely to cook and provide healthy nutrition, according to research published in 2011. Study authors concluded that "wholemeal acha and iburu flours can be used in the preparation of a number of biscuits and snacks that could be useful for individuals with gluten intolerance."

Allergies

There are no known allergies to fonio.

Adverse Effects

More research needs to be done to understand the grain's effect on the body, but because research indicates that fonio contains flavonoids that can reduce levels of thyroid hormones in the body, people who have hypothyroidism may want to avoid high intakes of fonio. Consult your healthcare provider for personalized advice.

Varieties

While fonio is healthiest as a whole grain, it is mostly available for purchase pearled, meaning the outer layer (the bran) has been removed. Pearling the fonio serves a few purposes. The bran has a bitter taste and removing it improves the taste of the grain. It also helps it cook faster. The downside is that pearled fonio is lower in fiber and other nutrients may be lost in the process.

There is not a standardized nutrition analysis available for the different fonio varieties—black, white, whole grain, and pearled—because not enough large-scale nutritional studies have been performed. Different brands come from different crops, which can have varying nutrition content and undergo independent analysis.

When It’s Best

A fast-growing plant, fonio only takes 6 to 8 weeks to grow to harvest. It requires little water or rich soil making it an ideal crop for regions of drought and soil depletion and a champion for environmental sustainability. Fonio is available year-round.

Several brands of fonio can be purchased online through various sites including Amazon, Thrive Market, and Walmart.

Storage and Food Safety

Store fonio like you store all of your grains. Place in an air-tight container and store in a dry space, away from sunlight.

How to Prepare

Fonio has an earthy and nutty taste with a texture similar to couscous. It can be easily incorporated into a variety of cuisines and cooking preparations. 

​Fonio can be eaten the same way as other grains such as millet, quinoa, bulgur, or oats: hot or cold, sweet or savory. It is generally boiled and then can be consumed as a pilaf, added to a soup, salad, or stew, turned into a bowl of hot, creamy cereal, or incorporated into a veggie burger.

Fonio can also be ground into a flour and used in baked goods such as cookies and brownies. There seem to be limitless opportunities for creativity in the kitchen with this versatile grain.

Recipes

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Article Sources
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