Fonio: An Ancient Grain and Nutrient Powerhouse

by | May 15, 2023 | Gut health, Healthy eating

If you’re on a gluten-free diet, you might experience feelings of isolation, restriction, or confusion as you’re constantly checking food labels and memorizing which ingredients to avoid. As wheat is off-limits on a gluten-free diet, finding a suitable replacement becomes crucial. Quinoa, one of the most popular gluten-free grains, is commonly found in gluten-free products. 

But what if you dislike quinoa?

During a recent conversation with a client regarding plant-based, gluten-free options, she confessed her distaste for quinoa. Despite feeling obligated to enjoy it, she couldn’t stand the taste. Since she missed eating couscous on her gluten-free diet, I, being naturally curious, looked for new and healthy alternatives. My search criteria were straightforward: the foods must be minimally processed, nutritious, and as close to their natural form as possible. 


Grains Around the World

Did you know that there are over 50,000 known edible plants in the world? Corn, wheat, and rice make up more than two-thirds of the world’s supply of plant-sourced foods. According to Healthline, nine popular naturally gluten-free grains are sorghum, quinoa, millet, oats, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, corn, and brown rice.  Check out which ones are the best in my blog 6 Best Gluten Free Grains.


During my quest for substitutes for quinoa, I stumbled upon fonio, which was unfamiliar to me until then. Fonio has been a fundamental food source in West Africa for over 5000 years. Fonio, a naturally gluten0free grain from the millet family, is commonly known as “hungry rice,” or “acha” by Ghanians, and “po tolo” by the Dogons of Mali.


Fonio (Digitaria exilis and Digitaria iburua) is thought to be the oldest African cereal. For thousands of years, West Africans have cultivated it across the dry savannas. It looks like sand, has a mild nutty flavour and is finer than couscous.


Nutritional Advantages of Fonio

FonioQuinoaCouscousCream of WheatWhite RiceBrown rice
Size1/4 cup dry1/4 cup dry1/4 cup dry1/4 cup dry1/4 cup dry1/4 cup dry
Fat (g)030102
Carbohydrate (g)373133323839
Fibre (g)132212
Protein (g)366434
Iron (mg)


These grains have comparable nutritional profiles, which makes them great replacements for wheat-based grains. Couscous and Cream of Wheat, both wheat-derived, are unsuitable for gluten-free diets, making fonio a desirable alternative.

Fonio is naturally gluten-free, with zero fat and a rich source of fibre, protein, iron, and zinc. Depending on how it’s prepared, fonio can be an excellents substitute for couscous or Cream of Wheat.

Furthermore, fonio’s amino acid content is noteworthy. Amino acids are the fundamental building blocks of protein. While most plant-based grains are deemed “incomplete proteins” due to lacking several amino acids, fonio contains eight of the nine essential amino acids. The only amino acid missing in fonio is lysine, which is abundant in other plant-based foods, including lentils, soy, black beans, peas, pumpkin seed, and tempeh. Combining fonio with lysine-rich foods elevates the protein quality of a fonio meal, resulting in a “complete protein” nutritional profile equivalent to that of an egg.

Fonio is also rich in methionine and cysteine, both crucial amino acids for human health. Additionally, fonio has a lower glycemic index than white rice, making it ideal for individuals with diabetes, as it doesn’t cause as much of a spike in blood sugar levels during digestion.


Culinary Uses for Fonio

How to Prepare Fonio

Fonio is very easy to prepare. Depending on the meal or recipe, fonio can be prepared by boiling or steaming. Steaming fonio leads to a couscous texture and is perfect in any grain recipe. It can also be consumed as a breakfast, side, or main recipe. It is delicious as a hot cereal and has a comparable texture to Cream of Wheat porridge. 

To prepare fonio, take two parts liquid (vegetable broth and water both work well) and one part fonio. Bring the liquid to a boil in a pot, then add the fonio. Mix well, cover the pot, and boil on low for five minutes. Then turn the stove off and let the fonio sit covered for an additional ten minutes. Once the ten minutes are up, remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and serve.


Where Can I Buy Fonio?

Pierre Thiam is a Senegalese, American restauranteur and former Iron Chef contestant has been working on bringing fonio to the American market. He published the cookbook, Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl that has some traditional fonio recipes. 

Fonio has great potential to help solve food and nutrition security we face, especially in this era of erratic climate change. In Canada, Farafena, a Vancouver company is bringing this nutrient-rich gluten-free alternative to North Americans. 

Farafena is a purpose-driven company that is improving the lives of female farmers and their families in Mali, West Africa. They work with about 1000 women from nine different villages in Mali, paying them directly for the crops they grow. 

Farafena sells fonio as a grain and flour and is available in the natural foods section at Loblaws, making it easily accessible. Check out their recipe page for some ideas on how to incorporate fonio into your meals. 


Final Thoughts

If you’re following a gluten-free diet but don’t like quinoa, fonio can be an excellent alternative. With a texture similar to couscous or Cream of Wheat, it’s an excellent addition to any meal.

Eating well with dietary restrictions shouldn’t be difficult or time-consuming. If you’re looking for expert advice on your dietary needs or if you are interested in a plant-based meal plan, check out my coaching or my personalized meal planning services. I also offer a one time, free consultation, for you and I to discuss your nutritional needs and whether or not we’re a good fit to work together.

Get in touch with Keren and book a free 15-minute discovery call today!

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