Health Benefits of Fonio

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 28, 2022
4 min read

You may have heard of quinoa, amaranth, millet, and even couscous — but what is fonio? This tiny cereal grain originated in Africa, and while it’s not very well-known yet in North America, it has provided nutrition and health benefits to people of other continents for thousands of years.

Fonio is like the other ancient grains listed above, but it has a slightly different taste and texture and several benefits that make it an appropriate addition to nearly any diet. Become better acquainted with fonio’s history, learn about its nutritional content, and decide how you’d like to cook it for yourself.

You might know the benefits of eating more whole grains instead of refined ones (like white bread and white rice), but you might feel bored with a diet of whole-wheat bread and brown rice. This is where ancient grains can help you boost your diet, as well as your nutrition.

If you’ve never tried an ancient grain, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised with its mild, pleasing taste and culinary versatility. Popular ancient grains like quinoa have come into the spotlight as pizza crusts, pasta, and salad toppings. 

Other ancient grains, like fonio, are rarely seen in North America. It’s important to eat a varied diet for nutritional reasons as well as taste. If you’re having trouble sticking to a “healthy” diet, learn more about alternative and interesting options like traditional grains from other regions of the world.

Many developing countries use cereal grains, legumes, and other plant foods as their main sources of protein. Fonio is a staple crop in several countries in Africa and Asia. 

Like quinoa and other ancient grains, fonio has benefits that include the following:

B-Vitamins. These vitamins carry nutrients and oxygen through the bloodstream, help our bodies access energy stored in the food we’ve eaten, and assist our enzymes in working more efficiently. They’re also incredibly important for the health of pregnant women and their growing babies. Most of the B-complex vitamins, except for B-12 (which is found in animal meat), are found in whole grains like fonio.

Protein. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or just looking for a way to sneak more protein into your diet, try ancient grains. Protein is a collective term for over 20 amino acids, which combine in different ways to help the body build muscle, repair skin, grow hair, and more. Most adults weighing 140 pounds need about 50 grams of protein per day, while adults weighing 200 pounds need 70. 

Ask your doctor or nutritionist if you need more help adding protein to your diet.

Whole grains. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s important to eat a variety of grains, with a focus on whole grains. A refined grain, like white rice, has had its outer layer — which is composed of the bran and germ — removed. 

A whole grain, like brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa, or fonio, has all of its nutrients and a higher fiber content due to this intact nutritional “shell”. 

Additionally, fonio in particular is gluten-free and can provide whole-grain nutrition for people who can’t eat wheat and other gluten-containing grains.

Low glycemic index. Due to its protein and fiber content, fonio won’t spike your blood sugar, and it’s a good choice for people adhering to a low-glycemic diet (like people with diabetes). For people who eat gluten-free diets, it provides a high-fiber, whole-grain alternative to the processed, higher-starch grain foods — like white rice and potatoes — that make up many gluten-free products.

Many experts think it’s healthy to choose low-glycemic foods if you want to control your blood sugar and lose weight. Grains like fonio can help you stay full, and they’ll help prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes.

Food for your gut bacteria. The nutritional value of fonio goes beyond vitamins and minerals. We all have good bacteria living in our guts — and like other organisms, this bacteria needs to eat. Fonio, with its nutrient profile and high fiber content, can provide a good food source for healthy bacteria, which impact immune function as well as mental health.

Fonio grows mostly in West Africa, and it's thought to be one of the oldest crops in the world. It’s referenced as a food item as far back as the 1500s, and it was probably planted and cultivated up to 7.000 years ago in Africa. 

This superfood is important to many groups of people in West Africa because it is easy to cultivate, and it matures earlier than other grains popular in the area like sorghum. It’s tedious and physically strenuous to process this grain without machines, but rural groups often free the fonio seeds from the plant by stomping on its straw to de-hull the grains and letting them dry in the sun. 

Fonio, like quinoa and other ancient grains, has many uses — even in the standard Western diet. You can blend it into smoothies for a fiber boost, bake with its flour, or use it in vegetarian dishes instead of meat. Traditionally, fonio makes appearances in soup and bread, and it’s also popped like popcorn.

If you’re on a gluten-free diet, need more fiber and low-glycemic foods, or enjoy ancient grains (and are tired of eating quinoa), give fonio a try. This little-known superfood is tasty on its own — or it can play a part as a novel ingredient in a more complex recipe.

Fonio is probably not available at your local grocery store, but health food stores may carry it. You can also order fonio online if you can’t find it locally.