Fonio Nutrition Facts

Calories, Carbs, and Health Benefits of Fonio

cooked fonio with greens

Osarieme Eweka / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Fonio may be new to Western cuisine, but this ancient cereal grain has been cultivated in West African countries for over 5,000 years. The tiniest grain in the millet family, it is a main source of nutrition for more than 3 million people. While it has been around since ancient times and may be Africa’s oldest cultivated cereal crop, it has not been very well studied and is not well known outside of Africa.

A gluten-free, protein-rich grain, Fonio, also called acha, contains the highest amounts of amino acids methionine and cysteine of any grain. It has a similar amino acid profile to a whole egg.

Fonio is also a source of fiber as well as B-vitamins, zinc, and magnesium. The grain is the size of a very small seed, reminiscent of a cross between couscous and quinoa that quadruples in size once cooked.

While fonio is healthiest as a whole grain, it is mostly available for purchase as 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 pearled folio is lower in fiber and other nutrients may be lost in the process.

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

Nutrition Facts

The following nutrition information, from the USDA National Agriculture Library, is for 1/4 cup (45g) dry serving of pearled fonio, which yields 1 cup cooked:

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

Carbs in Fonio

There are 39 grams of carbohydrates in a 1 cup cooked serving of fonio. As a whole grain, fonio contains loads of fiber, however, the pearled version, which is the most widely available form, contains 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 subjects with type 2 diabetes and healthy volunteers and determined its GI is 49 and 35, respectively.

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. In nondiabetics, brown rice has a GI of 50. Couscous has a GI of 65.

Fats in Fonio

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

Protein in Fonio 

On average, fonio’s protein content in 8%, however, crops can vary from 5% to 11%. It has a unique protein content. Whole grains contain varying amounts of amino acids that make up the building blocks of protein. The body needs a combination of amino acids to form a complete protein. Most grains need to be paired with food that provides complementary amino acids, such as beans and rice.

In nutrition science, the protein quality is measured against that of a whole egg since the protein in eggs is complete and easily absorbed by the body, making it a perfect protein. The amino acid profile of fonio is very similar to that of an egg and contains almost twice as much of the amino acid methionine.

Fonio also contains high amounts of the amino acid cysteine. This is notable because both methionine and cysteine are low or negligible in other whole grains including sorghum, rice, wheat, and barley. This makes it more nutrient-dense than most grains and a good choice to include as part of a vegan diet.

Micronutrients in Fonio

Not a lot of large scale research has been done to assess the vitamin and mineral content of fonio. According to a small review paper, fonio contains B-vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, and manganese. One manufacturer of fonio indicates that fonio contains more iron, magnesium, and copper than other whole grains such as amaranth, oats, or quinoa.

Health Benefits

Fonio is gluten-free, has an excellent amino acid profile, and a relatively low glycemic index compared to other grains. It is a healthy grain to incorporate into any diet and may be especially beneficial for those with celiac disease, gluten sensitivities, diabetes, or following a vegan diet. Its high methionine and cysteine content is also associated with liver detoxification and strengthened hair and nails. 

Common Questions

​Where can I buy Fonio?

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

Yolélé Foods brand, which was founded by chef Pierre Thiam, is available at select Whole Foods in New York and New England as well as some other retailers across the mid-Atlantic and New England. Yolélé foods partners with a non-governmental organization (NGO) that directs a portion of sales to benefit the communities of fonio growers in West Africa.

Earth's Goodness and Lanfala are two other brands available in the U.S. all available for purchase online nationwide. 

Is fonio gluten-free?

Yes, fonio is a naturally gluten-free cereal grain.

What does fonio taste like?

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. 

Why haven’t I heard about fonio before?

According to Chef Thiam, during colonial times a rumor circulated suggesting native crops of Africa were not as nutritious as the imported ones resulting 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.

Why are there discrepancies between the nutrition information that is available for fonio?

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. Despite some discrepancies, there is a consensus that fonio is a nutrient-dense gluten-free grain with a variety of vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids.

The USDA nutrient database does not yet contain a nutritional analysis for fonio. The information in this article is from a combination of studies available in the USDA National Agriculture Library.

Recipe and Preparation Tips

​Fonio is easy to prepare using the same method as cooking rice or oats but in a fraction of the time. Most fonio on the market is pre-washed and pre-cooked but if you purchase whole grain fonio, the cooking process will still be the same.

In a pot large enough to allow for expansion, coat 1/2 cup fonio with 1 teaspoon oil. Add 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Stir, cover, and lower to simmer for one minute. Remove from the heat and keep covered; let rest 4 minutes. Fluff with a fork while still warm and serve. Since fonio quadruples after cooking, this amount will yield 2 cups. 

Fonio can also be prepared in a steamer basket, rice cooker, and even the microwave. To prepare in the microwave, combine 1/2 cup fonio and 1 cup of water (or 1 cup fonio and 2 cups water) in a large bowl; cover tightly with plastic wrap and cook for 2 minutes. Keep it covered for an additional 2 minutes and fluff with a fork before serving. 

Fonio is very forgiving: if it comes out too soggy, continue to cook until it is the desired consistency and if it is too dry or undercooked, add a little water and cook some more. 

​Fonio can be eaten the same way as other grains such as millet, quinoa, bulgur or oats: hot or cold, sweet or savory. It can be eaten 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.

Allergies and Interactions

There are no known allergies or interactions however some research indicates that as part of the millet family, fonio contains phytochemicals that can reduce levels of thyroid hormones in the body. More definitive research needs to be done however people who have hypothyroidism may want to avoid high intakes of fonio. 

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