What the Heck is Fonio?

What the Heck is Fonio?

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This is another blog topic from my list, pre worldwide pandemic. But like everything else in 2020, it was disrupted. As we start to navigate 2021, I’m viewing it as a year of transition. The covid-19 vaccine is rolling out, global trade will start to pick up and the focus of producing less with less will continue, because we were forced to implement that in 2020. As a food and nutrition trends expert, I’m often contacted about consumers’ behaviours around food and eating patterns and that leads me to – what the heck is fonio?

Food Supply in 2021

From food origin and transparency to customer experience and demands, the global food system is complex and interlinked. With the pandemic’s far-reaching implications in the food supply, more than ever traceability and sustainability are top of mind for both businesses and consumers in 2021.

The complexity of food growing, handling, processing, distributing, retailing, food service, home preparation, and disposal, plus all the workers involved at each step, was highlighted due to the pandemic. As global trade pick up in 2021, continued improvements in our food system will evolve. Consumers crave healthy foods and new experiences. This will continue with our current shelter at home restrictions. Natural, sustainability sourced, and health-conscious ingredients are all still top of mind for most people. That brings us back to – what the heck is fonio?


Fonio is a gluten-free ancient grain from the millet family known as the “seed of the universe”. Records indicate it has been grown for over 5,000 years in Africa. As the story goes, it was found in Egyptian tombs as a grain for the afterlife. Fonio has been a staple cereal grain for many years within West African countries including Guinea, and Nigeria (1).

A very tiny white or black grain, fonio is straightforward to grow as it is drought resistant in poor soil conditions and doesn’t require the need for excess fertilizers and pesticides. Nicknamed “the lazy farmer’s crop”, it is considered one of world’s fastest-growing grains. Chefs describe it as extremely simple to cook with, resulting in a light and fluffy texture and a nutty flavour. It is consumed similar to porridge, as a side dish and ground into flour. Need more  – what the heck is fonio? Let’s move on to health.

Jane-Dummer-Grocery-ShoppingFonio and Health

Fonio is gluten-free, high in quality carbohydrates (low glycemic index), rich in iron at 8.5 grams/100 grams (compared to quinoa 4.6 grams/ 100 grams and oats 4.3 grams/ 100 grams), a good source of fibre, and a source of those stress-fighting B Vitamins (2).

To date, there is limited scientific research on the health benefits of fonio for humans. However, based on its nutrient profile and some studies, it has potential health benefits related to digestive health/weight management, diabetes, and celiac disease management.

Digestive Health/Weight Management

Based on its fibre and protein content, fonio has the potential to impact a healthy digestive tract, while assisting in providing the feeling of satiety (feeling full). Foods high in fibre help keep us regular and aid in a healthy microbiome. Fonio has 4 grams of protein per 125 mL serving and is high in the amino acids methionine and cysteine.   Higher levels of lean protein intake at meals are associated with increased satiety and promoting weight loss (3). In addition, Fonio’s low glycemic index can help improve blood glucose stability, a factor contributing to weight management.

Diabetes Management

Fonio shows potential for diabetes management. Consuming low glycemic index foods as part of a healthy diet can improve insulin response. In addition, Fonio demonstrated a decrease inflammatory response within diabetic mice and improve insulin resistance (4). However, clinical trial studies are required to confirm these effects with human populations.

Immune Health

Fonio is a nutritious ancient grain that does not contain gluten, making it a good alternative to gluten-containing grains for the celiac population. Also, it is rich in iron, which is a mineral that has been identified of concern for celiac individuals, due to a lack of fortification of iron within gluten-free diets and processed gluten-free products.

JaneDummer_winterhiking3Final Thoughts of What the Heck is Fonio?

Fonio is a nutritious, gluten-free ancient grain that checks other boxes, in addition to nutritional value, such as it is easy to grow, it contributes to sustainable farming, and it is simple to cook.  Remember no single food or ingredient is a silver bullet. Especially important now that we are in a global health crisis, a lifestyle filled with healthy habits including a balanced dietary pattern with nutritious snacks, exercise, and restful sleep is the best approach for long-term consistent, mind-body health.

As we navigate 2021 (the year of transition), continue to produce less with less, and the global economy picks up, will fonio be an ingredient on your menu?

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  1. European Food Safety Authority. Technical Report on the notification of decorticated grains of Digitaria exilis (Kippist) Stapf as a traditional food from a third country pursuant to Article 14 of Regulation (EU) 2015/2283. 2018
  2. FONIO AFRICAN SUPERGRAIN [Internet]. Available from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/594808/nutrients
  3. Veldhorst MAB, Westerterp KR, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Gluconeogenesis and protein-induced satiety. Br J Nutr. 2012 Feb 28; 107(4):595–600.
  4. Traore D. Effects of Digitaria Exilis (Fonio) on Inflammation and Diabetes Pathogenesis. 2011 Jul

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