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Functional Food
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I Can't Get Enough Of This Nutrient-Dense Grain — Here's How I Use It

April 3, 2021

If I were to pick one food realm that inspires me to broaden my dietary horizons the most, it would be ancient grains. From buckwheat to amaranth, these mighty plants have been a nutritious staple across the globe for millenniums, often providing a wealth of positive health benefits1 compared to modern grains. They are termed "ancient" because they've remained unchanged for thousands of years, implying they haven't been processed, hybridized, or genetically modified like other food groups such as wheat, maize, or rice. 

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All ancient grains are whole grains, which, together with carbohydrates, protein, and fat, make them a compelling source of nutritional bioactives like fiber and even phytochemicals2. However, while ancient-grain consumption for overall health can be an optimal strategy, there's a beautifully simple but nourishing edible I just stumbled upon that utterly transformed my zeal for these grains. Enter: fonio!

What is fonio?

African superfoods, such as wild-cereal grains, provide a glimpse into the abundance of culinary, nutritional, and sustainable power the continent has offered for eons. Considered one of the oldest cultivated cereals, fonio is an Indigenous West African crop, and the name encompasses two species: Digitaria exilis (white fonio) and Digitaria iburua (black fonio). It's a hearty crop that's adaptable to not-so-ideal growing conditions, like drought and infertile soil. Thanks to its environmental, fast-maturing, and health-supporting qualities (i.e., gluten-free and whole grain), fonio is a valuable tool for maintaining food security.

Despite its far-reaching significance, high nutritional value3, and ancient heritage, research on fonio's functional properties4 and genetic diversity has been somewhat scant5. Today, widespread awareness and strong market demand for these ancient grains are rising due to their purported nutritional, environmental, and dietary diversification potential. For example, fonio was officially introduced in Europe as a novel food in 2018, to satisfy and amplify the market's interest in specialty, nutrient-conscious, and gluten-free products.

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Why fonio?

While comparable to quinoa in texture and appearance, fonio's vibrant, earthy nuance makes it a unique but versatile grain (or pseudo-cereal). From porridge to baked goods, fonio is a naturally gluten-free alternative that can be easily adapted to all styles of cuisines. 

It's also a great source of plant-based amino acids—methionine and cystine—phytochemicals, magnesium, zinc, copper, and calcium5 (the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization suggests that fonio has one of the highest calcium contents of all grains), to name a few. Unlike processed or refined grains, fonio is an easy-to-digest, low-glycemic grain with plenty of fiber.

How to cook it.

I like to cook fonio just like quinoa, with a steaming approach that uses less liquid and helps elevate its earthy, rustic flavors the most. Once cooked, fonio is an exquisite vessel that can effortlessly embody the flavors of the foods it's prepared with, making it a great substitute for couscous, rice, millet, oats, and beyond. 

Before you start, make sure to rinse and swish the grains around with your fingers, several times until it runs clear. Drain well. Bring one part liquid (water or veggie stock are great options) to a boil in a medium pot. Stir in the fonio, add a pinch of salt, and cover. Turn the heat to low, and cook for five minutes (or until the liquid is absorbed). Next, turn the heat off and let the fonio "rest" for another 8 to 10 minutes until tender. Fluff it up with a fork and enjoy!

While the following recipes call for quinoa, you can follow the method above to work some fonio magic, for an exciting swap: Lemon-Parmesan Quinoa, Quinoa Stuffed Peppers, Rainbow Grain Bowl, and Quinoa Breakfast Frittata.

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The bottom line.

Fonio is an easy-to-prepare, wonderful heritage grain with plenty of health and well-being perks. Because of its growing appeal, you can find fonio at many health food shops and online supermarkets nationwide, making it a convenient way to diversify your healthy eating regimen. Learning about the cultural, nutritional, and sustainable traits of fonio inspired me to deepen and embrace the plethora of nutrition gifts from Africa—I hope it does the same for you. 

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Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A
Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A
Food & Nutrition Writer

Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A, is a journalist, IIN graduate integrative health coach, E-RYT 500 lead yoga teacher, and 500-Hour certified Pilates instructor from San José, Costa Rica. She received her master's degree in communication and journalism from The University of New Mexico, emphasizing well-being, sustainable fashion, health communication research, and graduating Summa Cum Laude. A former professional dancer, she's earned multiple academic and accredited certifications in performance design, positive psychology, doula training, entrepreneurship, digital marketing, mindfulness, innovation leadership, and integrative health. Her work has appeared at top consulting brands and organizations across Latin American and the US, including Byrdie and Albuquerque The Magazine. She currently lives between Costa Rica and New Mexico.