Fonio (also called acha and iburu), an ancient cereal grain from Africa, may be the next healthy grain to watch—and to protect.
This week I read a study about two “new” ancient grains: acha (white fonio, Digitaria exiliis) and iburu (black fonio, Digitaria iburua). In the past few years, ancient grains (think quinoa, teff, and even chia seeds) have enjoyed a revival in the West, appearing on menus and in packaged foods like cereals and bars. Fonio, it turns out, is one of those grains that has been around for millennia but has largely escaped notice in Western scientific and food communities.
However, the Journal of Food Science recently reported a study that evaluated both fonio strains for making sourdough bread and found that sourdough fermentation “increased the nutritional and sensory qualities” of the bread. The researchers also noted that the small size of acha and iburu (fonio is the tiniest species of millet) means they require little processing, minimizing the loss of nutrients during milling. And it’s gluten free, making fonio another possible nutritive wheat substitute. Could it be the next quinoa?
According to a fascinating book series, Lost Crops of Africa (online at The National Academies Press), fonio is possibly Africa’s oldest and tastiest cereal grain and is wonderfully nutritious, rich in amino acids, especially methionine and cystine, now deficient in modern processed wheat and rice. Fonio is cultivated across a huge swath of West Africa; it’s also one of the fastest growing cereal grains, reaching maturity in as little as six to eight weeks, and it tolerates poor soil with little water, thriving where nothing else will grow, and requiring no treatment with pesticides or herbicides—both good signs for sustainable production.
There’s hardly any scientific literature about fonio (acha or iburu), so it will be interesting to see if this new study garners attention in the food world. I do wonder already, however, whether fonio will end up following quinoa’s unfortunate path to popularity—meaning, farmers and communities who’ve depended on it for millennia will suddenly find it priced beyond their means. As a critical grain for food safety and biodiversity in African culture, fonio mustn’t become exploited. I think it’s incumbent upon Western food producers to commit now to preserving and sustaining this important crop through fair-trade practices.