The food industry is constantly changing and evolving, welcoming new ingredients and flavors into the mainstream. One new ingredient that is drawing attention in 2020 comes from the West African portion of the Sahel region. Known as fonio, this grain might become available to the rest of the world if food companies such as Terra Ingredients bring it to the market. Consumed and cultivated in West Africa for thousands of years, fonio is an ancient grain that experts believe could be the continent’s oldest cultivated cereal crop. With ancient grains becoming increasingly popular on the global market, fonio could become the next sought-after product in this area. But what is fonio and why could it become a game changer for the food industry?
What is fonio?
A type of millet, fonio is an ancient grain that is not much larger than a speck of sand with a high nutrient profile and a nutty flavor. Texturally, it could be described as pebble-like, akin to a cross between quinoa and couscous. Like rice, the grains are small but grow to nearly double their original size after cooking. Fonio is also an easy grain to cook and requires only a boil and fluff with a fork to be ready for consumption. The ease of preparation is also a good reason to incorporate it into commercial kitchens. Chefs will likely find it easy to integrate into common recipes because it can be used intuitively in much the same way that other grains can.
Fonio has never been formally cultivated, nor has anyone ever bred it to produce desirable characteristics, an example being crops that stronger stalks to prevent drooping when they ripen. Fonio is also a quick-growing crop that doesn’t require pesticides or fertilizer. Additionally, the dry climate in which it is produced means that it can do well with little water.
For those focused on sustainability, these qualities make fonio a desirable crop to produce. With a growing time of six to eight weeks, it also has the potential to revolutionize the economies of African countries that seek to market it on the international scene.
Challenges in producing fonio
With so many good qualities, what are some of the problems involved with producing fonio? Harvesting fonio is largely undertaken by hand, making it labor intensive. In Africa, workers in the fields cut the crops down manually using sickles, and women separate the grains by stepping on them while they lay atop straw mats or tarps. After separating them, the grains are washed by hand.
Aside from harvesting the crop, the biggest problem with producing fonio right now involves the difficulty of processing and exporting it to other countries. This is the primary reason why few consumers have heard of this crop. It is also likely why the grain is so expensive to purchase. One of the main companies producing fonio, Yolélé Foods, offers three 10-ounce bags for $19.95 via the online retailer Amazon.
Another company, Terra Ingredients, has developed a mechanized method for processing that could help to cut the cost of the grain and pass on those savings to consumers. Engineering such a system could prove difficult. Due to the grain’s small size, it often picks up bits of sand during the removal of the hull. After months of research and development, Terra Ingredients succeeded in creating its mechanized process and later built a processing plant in Senegal.
Once the new plant is fully operational, the processed grains will be shipped to another Terra plant in North Dakota to undergo metal detection and final pasteurization, safety standards that the company also applies to other products it produces.
Many health benefits
In addition to its sustainable qualities, fonio has impressive nutritional value. The grain is a good source of protein at 12 grams per cup, as well as amino acids, zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins. The amino acid content is particularly important. Fonio contains high levels of cystine and methionine, which are types of amino acids that are not usually found in other cereal and grain crops. Fonio can also be used as a gluten-free flour for baking, making it an excellent choice for consumers with gluten allergies or those who are watching their gluten intake. Furthermore, it is naturally vegan.
As food companies and consumers begin to take more notice of this grain, it could become a new ingredient on the market in the coming decade. West African flavors are already increasing in popularity across the world, and if food companies can find a way to produce and export fonio in an affordable way, it could become a part of this movement as a new staple ingredient.