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Fonio: What it is, Features and Benefits


What is fonio?

Il fonio it's a ancient cereal of African origin which is cultivated in the rural areas of Senegal and in other areas of the continent, recently back in the spotlight for its nutritional profile and because of its cultivation technique, which could be a solution to fight famine and drought. In Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and Togo, fonio was traditionally reserved for chiefs and royalty and consumed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan or at celebrations such as weddings and baptisms. Despite its rich cultural heritage and the nutritional profilefonio has always been considered a neglected cultivated species and scarcely used until today.

Traditionally, fonio crops were even referred to as “lost crops,”smaller harvests” or “orphan crops,” and for this reason have not been thoroughly studied, and largely grown by small farms for the needs of small communities. However, fonio is among the oldest grains used by humans for their food and it seems that it was cultivated in Africa as early as 5000 BC.

The two types of fonio

Fonio is a cereal that belongs to the millet family. There are two main types:

  • The fingers are thin. This white bean grows from Senegal to Chad, as well as in central Nigeria. It is the more commonly consumed of the two varieties and more readily available outside of Africa.
  • Digitaria iburua. This white wheat has black or brown spikelets and grows mainly in parts of Nigeria, Togo and Benin.

The rediscovery of the ancient cereal

Today fonio is considered a real priority crop for West Africa, which is also making itself known in the West, although its consumption is mainly niche. Thanks to its nutritional and environmental properties, as well as the need to diversify one's diet, it can be found in the aisles and ethnic food specialty shops, or in the best-stocked organic shops.

The renewed interest in this super grain has its concrete reasons. On a nutritional level, the main characteristics it boasts are that it is a cereal gluten free, therefore suitable for celiacs and gluten-intolerant subjects; to contain four times the proteinsthree times the fibre and almost double the iron than brown rice, to have low glycemic indexand therefore be suitable in a diet followed by people with diabetes; as well as being a mine of mineral salts (iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc).

Fonio: nutritional profile

In addition to being naturally low in cholesterol, sodium and fat, 50 grams of dry fonio contains:

  • Calorie: 190
  • Proteins: 3 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Grassi: 0.6 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 40 grams
  • Fiber: 4% of the daily requirement
  • Ferro: 4% of the daily requirement

Fonio is a good source of B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin and niacin, which are necessary for cell growth, development and function, as well as energy production. On a food level, i.e. in terms of use in the kitchen, it is comparable to the more common rice. Compared to other cereals, however, contains more carbohydrates and fewer lipids.

Another advantage is the richness of mineral salts such as calcium, magnesium, zinc and manganese. It also contains good percentages of iron and essential amino acids, such as methionine and cystine, which are necessary for our body which is unable to produce them. Iron and copper help form red blood cells, connective tissue and blood cells, while zinc plays a role in immune function, protein synthesis and cell growth and division.

Beneficial properties of fonio

Source of amino acids of plant origin

Fonio is a good addition to the diets of people who do not eat enough animal or high-protein foods. Although its protein composition is comparable to that of white rice, fonio boasts significantly higher amounts of amino acids containing sulfur, methionine -fundamental for skin elasticity, hair growth, nail health and the growth and repair of body tissues- and cisteina, a nonessential amino acid required for protein synthesis and detoxification. It also plays a role in the formation of the amino acid taurine. Both of these amino acids are lacking in grains such as corn, wheat, rice, sorghum and barley. With the exception of lysine, a typical serving of fonium can satisfy approximately 10% of the daily requirement of essential amino acids of an adult.

Digestible and beneficial for the intestine

Fonio is consumed in its entirety and is therefore considered a whole grain. Unlike refined grains where the germ and bran are removed during processing, whole grains include all three parts of the kernel: bran, endosperm and germ. Whole grains can aid weight management and gut health, regulate intestinal transit, and reduce the risk of colorectal and stomach cancer.

Low glycemic index

Fonium contains resistant starch, which resists digestion and absorption in the small intestine. Resistant starches have many health benefits and may play a role in increasing insulin sensitivity and lowering blood sugar levels. Additionally, this cereal has a low glycemic index, which means it doesn't quickly raise blood sugar levels. For this reason, it can be added to the balanced diet followed by people with diabetes.

Gluten free

Fonio is a naturally gluten-free cereal, therefore it is safe for people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, eliminating the symptoms of abdominal swelling, irritable bowel syndrome, nausea and tiredness, typical of intolerant subjects when they eat foods that contain gluten, a group of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye.

How is fonio used in the kitchen?

Fonio is extremely versatile in the kitchen, although not yet known. When cooked, it easily absorbs the flavors and aromas of the foods it is prepared with. In West Africa, fonio is traditionally cooked as couscous, made into a porridge, and used fermented to make local drinks. Like other grains, it can be ground into a flour and used in baked goods, such as bread, cookies, and cakes. Here are some ideas in the kitchen.

  • Replace fonio with any grain, including rice, couscous, millet, sorghum, quinoa and barley.
  • Use it in porridge in the same way you would use oats.
  • Add it to soups and stews.
  • Sprinkle it on salads.
  • Use fonio flour in baked goods such as bread, biscuits, cakes and bars.
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