Fonio Nutrition Facts

Calories, Carbs, and Health Benefits of Fonio

Cooked Fonio
Photo Credit: Yolélé Foods.

Fonio may be new to you, but it is an ancient cereal grain, the tiniest in the millet family, that has been cultivated in West African countries for over 5,000 years and supplies food for 3-4 million. 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.

Luckily, people like cookbook author and recognized chef Pierre Thiam are trying to change this, and are finding ways to introduce fonio to the US market.

Chef Thiam has founded Yolélé Foods which imports and packages fonio for retail sale in the US and has partnered with a non-governmental organization (NGO) in order to direct a portion of sales to benefit communities of fonio growers and farmers in West Africa; Earth's Goodness and Lanfala are two other companies that offer fonio in the US and while they may be hard to come by in a local supermarket, all are available for purchase online nationwide. 

From the research that has been done, nutritional analysis indicates that fonio contains significant amounts of the amino acids methionine and cysteine compared to other grains and shares an amino acid profile similar to that of a whole egg which is considered the highest quality protein. 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.

Fonio is a whole grain but most available for purchase is pearled, meaning it has the outer layer (the bran) removed, making it very fast cooking but also lower in fiber.

  Nutrition facts information will vary for whole-grain fonio vs. pearled.  

The plant is very fast growing (only takes 6-8 weeks to grow and harvest) and 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

Fonio Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1/4 cup (45g) (pearled fonio)
Per Serving% Daily Value*
Calories 170 
Calories from Fat 4.5 
Total Fat 0.5g1%
Saturated Fat 0g0%
Polyunsaturated Fat 0g 
Monounsaturated Fat 0g 
Cholesterol 0mg0%
Sodium 0mg0%
Potassium  N/A0%
Carbohydrates 39g9%
Dietary Fiber 1g12%
Sugars 0g 
Protein 2g  
Vitamin A 0% · Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 0% · Iron 4% 
*Based on a 2,000 calorie diet

Carbs in Fonio

Per 1/4 cup dry, which yields approximately 1 cup cooked, fonio contains 39g Carbohydrates.  Fonio is a whole grain with loads of naturally containing fiber however the pearled versions which are currently the most commonly available for purchase only contain 1g Fiber per serving. Whole grain varieties are likely to be more readily available as it gains popularity and demand increases so opt for that if it is available.

Research shows that fonio, including pearled fonio, has a lower glycemic index (GI) than couscous and brown rice (4).

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. According to the scale, foods less than 55 are considered low and greater than 70 considered high; pearled fonio's glycemic index is 57 making it relatively low scoring particularly among other grains. 

Fats in Fonio

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

Protein in Fonio 

​According to lab tests, Fonio’s protein content varies between 5%-11% but the average is 8%. Fonio’s protein content is one of its unique qualities.

Whole grains, in general, contain varying amounts of amino acids that the body uses to build protein. In nutrition science, the protein quality is measured against that of a whole egg since the protein in eggs is highly bioavailable (AKA easily absorbed by the body) and considered a perfect protein. According to research done, 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 making fonio more nutrient-dense than some other common cereals, and is a highly nutritious food 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 however according to a 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, making this a healthy food to incorporate into anyone’s diet but is especially good for those with celiac disease, gluten sensitivities, diabetes, and individuals following vegan diets. 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.com, Thrive Market and Walmart. Yolélé fonio 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.

Is all Fonio gluten-free?

Yes, fonio is naturally gluten-free.

What does Fonio taste like?

Fonio has an earthy and nutty like 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 myth was created that suggested 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. 

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

To date, there have not been enough large scale nutritional analysis studies done on fonio to obtain universal nutrition analysis for fonio and for the different varieties (i.e. black vs. white, whole grain vs. pearled) and there is no nutritional information on fonio in the USDA nutrient database. Therefore, the information provided in this article is from a combination of studies that have analyzed whole grain, minimally processed fonio and from nutrition information provided off of packaging from pearled varieties which may vary from brand to brand. 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.

Recipe and Preparation Tips

​Fonio is very 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 well 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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Article Sources

  • Ballogou Vénérande Y. , Soumanou Mohamed M., Toukourou Fatiou and Hounhouigan Joseph D. Structure and Nutritional Composition of Fonio (Digitaria exilis) Grains : A Review. International Research Journal of Biological Sciences. 2013; Vol. 2(1), 73-79.

  • Fonio. African Epicure website. Published 2015. 

  • Fonio. Yolélé Foods website. 2019.

  • Fonio (acha). National Academies Press website. Published 1996.

  • Sartelet H, Serghat S, Lobstein A, Ingenbleek Y, Anton R, Petitfrère E, Aguie-Aguie G, Martiny L, Haye B. Flavonoids extracted from fonio millet (Digitaria exilis) reveal potent antithyroid properties. Elsevier Journal of Nutrition. 1996 Feb;12(2):100-6. doi: 10.1016/0899-9007(96)90707-8