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Discover Fonio: A Healthy Addition to a Gluten-Free and Lectin-Free Diet

Fonio, the smallest grain from the millet family, is a nutritious and gut-friendly carb that can be added to a gluten-free and lectin-free diet. While cultivated and prized in West Africa for over 5,000 years, this ancient tiny grain (technically a seed) has only started to be appreciated in Western cuisines. It is light and fluffy, has a slightly nutty flavor, and only takes five minutes to prepare.

What is fonio?

Fonio (Digitaria Exilis) is an ancient grain native to west and central Africa that is considered healthier and more sustainable than other popular grains or pseudo-grains. 

With a tiny grain resembling the texture of granulated sugar, it is the easiest grain to cook because it only takes a few minutes and is also very forgiving. 

It can be cooked to be light and fluffy, like couscous, more creamy, like a porridge, or more compact, like a polenta. 

It only takes a few minutes on the stove, and that’s one of the reasons it has become my favorite cereal to include in my diet. 

Fonio doesn’t have a lot of taste, but it’s very good at absorbing sauces, spices, or other flavors. You can add it to just about any meal. 

Eat it the way you would eat rice, couscous, quinoa, millet, or oats. 

Photo provided by Yolélé, Evan Sung

Is fonio gluten-free?

Yes, fonio is a gluten-free and lectin-free whole grain and a more nutritious addition to your diet than other grains. 

For more information on lectin-free and gluten-free grains, check out our article: The 4 Gut-Healthy, Gluten-Free, and Lectin-Free Grains.

The cultural significance of fonio

Every time an ancient food gains popularity in Western cuisine, I like to understand the impact that can have on the communities producing that food. In the case of fonio, I contacted one of the most known companies that are bringing it from West Africa, Yolélé.

I love that they support smallholder farmers practicing regenerative agriculture techniques like intercropping, cover-cropping, and crop rotation.

Even when West African farmers can get fonio to market, they face two key problems that prevent them from making money. One is a lack of processing capacity, and the other is low agricultural productivity.

Yolélé is building processing facilities in West Africa and also collaborating with governments, intergovernmental agencies, and NGO’s to train and equip smallholders for increased productivity through conservation farming.

Considering fonio is a drought-tolerant grain, supporting fonio farming the way Yolélé does can be crucial for food security in the region.

Fonio: the seed of the universe

“In West Africa, fonio’s cultural significance has to do with its role in saving lives and alleviating hunger. Fonio’s growing season is short, and it tolerates almost any kind of weather. Subsistence farmers rely on the early harvest to replenish depleted stores of last year’s grain before the current harvest of major crops is ready. This critical role imbues fonio with a powerful image in the cultures who count on it. It’s known as “the seed of the universe”, the root of all existence – like the big bang. It is generally served at harvest time in a celebratory way. Throughout the year, it is served to honored guests, to elders, and to people in poor health due to its easy digestibility and dense nutrition.

For people new to fonio, the best way to celebrate it is to share it. Share the word, and serve the food. Eat it for breakfast every day the way you would oatmeal – it cooks in just minutes! Every usage provides income to smallholder farmers.” 

Pierre Thiam, Co-founder and President of Yolélé
Photo provided by Yolélé, Evan Sung

Is fonio the same as millet?

Fonio is a form of small-seeded grass, like millet. Fonio and millet are from the same family of grasses and are technically seeds, not grains. But conventionally, they are called grains.

Compared to millet, the grain is super tiny, resembling more like granulated sugar.

Where to buy fonio?

Fonio is still not as popular in The United States or Europe as other grains or pseudo-grains. That’s why you will probably not find it in the average grocery store. However, you will always find a way to order it online from Amazon or other specialty foods suppliers.

There are a couple of options on Amazon US:

The nutritional benefits of fonio. Is it high in carbs?

45g of fonio (one serving) has 36g of net carbs and 3g of protein. So the answer is, yes, it is high in carbs.  

But it is a nutritious alternative if you are gluten-free and lectin-free and don’t eat rice, potatoes, wheat, quinoa, or oats. 

While more studies about the nutritional value are needed, it is a good source of fiber, iron, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and antioxidant flavonoids. Compared to other grains, it is particularly high in two amino acids— methionine and cysteine.

In West Africa, it is prized by pregnant women and nursing mothers and is often fed as the first solid food for babies.

Fonio is a whole grain with a medium glycemic index (lower than rice, wheat, or sorghum). Because of its lower starch content, high fiber, and nutrient profile is considered safe for people with diabetes. 

However, you should serve it with fat and protein for slower absorption of carbs. Also, eat your carbs in the first part of the day, and if you have diabetes, use a glucose monitor to measure your response to consuming fonio.

Cooked fonio
Cooked fonio

How to cook fonio?

Fonio is the easiest and the most forgiving grain to cook. It only takes a few minutes on the stove and can be added to just about any meal. 

To cook on the stove, toast fonio in a few tablespoons of oil, and add the double amount of water. Bring to a boil, and simmer on low heat for 3 minutes. Stir and cover with a lid. After a few minutes, fluff with a fork.

There is a variation I love to use to make a more flavorful fonio. I sautee a couple of shallots in extra virgin olive oil until translucent and fragrant, add the fonio and toast for a minute or so, add double the amount of water, and salt and cook for 3 minutes. Turn the heat off, cover for a few more minutes, grate some Pecorino Romano, add pepper, more salt if necessary, and oregano, and fluff with a fork. Drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil.

Another way to cook it on the stove is to bring 1 cup of salted water to a boil, add 1/2 cup of fonio and lower heat, cook for 3 minutes, then turn off the heat and cover for a few minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

Fonio and Roasted Vegetables Bowl
Fonio and Roasted Vegetables Bowl

These are a few ways you can use fonio for:

  • to make porridge, grits, and polenta
  • to make pilaf or any white rice replacement dishes
  • to make couscous
  • to make tabbouleh salad
  • to add to salads and Buddha bowls
  • to add to meatballs, vegetarian burgers, or fishcakes
  • to add to soups and stews

How to make fonio flour?

You can buy fonio flour, but you can also make it in a blender using a milling blade if you can’t find it.

As flour, it can be used as a thickener or to make gluten-free and lectin-free desserts or baked goods.

Fonio Recipe: Chicken and Fonio with Herb Avocado Cream

If you want to start using it in your diet, check out this recipe: Chicken and Fonio with Herb-Avocado Cream.

Chicken and Fonio with Herb-Avocado Cream, Easy Summer Meal
Chicken and Fonio with Herb Avocado Cream

NOTE: This is NOT a sponsored post or an endorsement of any specific company. Do your own research and buy the product that resonates more with you.

*This page contains affiliated links, which means I get a small commission if you choose to purchase something via one of my links, at no extra cost to you.

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