Acha (Fonio) scientifically known as Digitaria exilis is a neglected superfood that has grown in West Africa for over 5000 years.
It is a tiny grass plant belonging to the Gramineae family and is one of the world’s oldest cereals.
This wonder grain also commonly called hungry rice, petit mil, fundi grain, and fonio rice, is high in protein, fiber, and carbohydrates.
Acha (Fonio) contains 7- 9% crude protein. Its protein content is rich in methionine and cysteine, two important amino acids almost deficient in wheat, rice, barley, and rye. It has also been shown to contain almost twice as much methionine as that found in an egg.
Fonio is commonly called “Hungry rice” because it was believed to be a poor man’s food. But in recent times, the fonio grain is in strong competition with other popular grains like quinoa.
It is the grain exotic in some African countries. It is highly prized and reserved for chiefs, royalty, and special occasions.
The grains are also fondly called “Grain of Life” because they mature between 6 – 8 weeks and provide food in the growing season when many crops are still immature to be harvested.
Of the two varieties grown, the white acha (D.exilis) is more popular in West Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, Benin) than the black acha (D. iburu) its other counterpart.
Nutrition Facts of Fonio
Acha is a nutrient-dense grain. It is rich in dietary fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids.
100 grams (g) of raw fonio grains contain:
- Energy: 367 kilocalories
- Carbs: 75 g
- Protein: 9 g
- Fat: 1.8 g
- Dietary Fiber: 3 g
- Calcium: 44 milligrams
- Iron: 9 mg
- Phosphorus: 177 mg
- Thiamin: 0.5 mg
- Niacin: 2 mg
- Methionine: 4.5
- Cysteine: 2.5
Acha also contains trace amounts of zinc, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phenylalanine, tyrosine, and other essential amino acids except lysine.
Methionine and Cysteine
Methionine and cysteine are the only sulfur-containing amino acids in the body. They function as protein building blocks and are metabolically linked because methionine is needed to produce cysteine.
Cysteine then helps the body to produce proteins, glutathione, SAM, and taurine – 3 important molecules that are critical to the proper functioning of the skin, nails, heart, and nerve cells in your body.
Health benefits of fonio
Acha (Fonio) grains have the following health benefits.
1. Diabetes management
Acha’s low glycemic index and low sugar content help reduce fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels, which is beneficial for those with diabetes.
A 2009 study concluded that acha is a low glycemic food, as a porridge made from both varieties of acha (black and white acha) had a low glycemic index of 40.
Another good reason why acha is a better alternative than most refined grains is that it contains resistant starch.
Resistant starch has shown promise in managing and preventing prediabetes and type-2 diabetes because it causes food to be digested and absorbed slowly which prevents a spike in blood sugar.
2. Gluten-free alternative
Celiac disease also called gluten intolerance is an immune reaction that causes the body to react negatively by destroying its own tissues when gluten is ingested.
Acha grains are a good alternative for people with celiac disease because they are easy to digest, full of fiber, and gluten-free.
3. Prevents obesity
A study concluded that the high dietary fiber in acha may be useful for people trying to stay healthy, as the fiber has no calories but keeps you full for longer periods.
Therefore, it prevents excessive hunger and overeating, nonetheless, you should eat acha in moderation to prevent unwanted weight gain.
4. Prevents constipation
Acha is rich in resistant starch – a type of dietary fiber that helps improve your digestion and regularity.
Adding acha as part of a diet will help people battling with chronic constipation and help prevent colon cancer.
Also Read: 15 African foods high in dietary fiber.
5. Energy food
Fonio grains provide 3.6 calories per gram of grain, similar to other popular grains (wheat, barley, rice). It is an ideal breakfast cereal, as it is light, easily digested, easy to cook, and packed with lots of energy, vitamins, and minerals.
Fonio is also an ideal meal for pregnant women, growing children, and infants.
6. Protects heart health
Acha grains are mostly consumed as whole grains because of their small size — similar to a grain of sand.
Since whole grain cereals are good sources of dietary fiber and phytochemicals, adding acha to your daily diet will be helpful in preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases and hypertension.
7. Prevents anemia
Fonio is a rich source of iron. Iron is an essential mineral in the body and supports a wide range of benefits from a strong immune system to fighting tiredness and fatigue.
The high iron content of fonio makes it particularly suitable for pregnant women, infants, growing children, and the elderly.
Culinary Uses/ Recipes
Acha is one of the world’s most tasteful cereals.
- Porridge: Acha is prepared with cowpeas in a dish reserved for special occasions.
- Breakfast cereal: It is washed thoroughly to remove sand and cooked on low heat. Milk is added, and then it is sweetened. It can be eaten with bread or bambara nut (okpa).
- Couscous: The Hausas a tribe from Nigeria prepare couscous (Wusu-wusu) from acha. To enrich it, they add dried fish, tomatoes, beef, and spices.
- Bread: Fonio can be ground or mixed with corn or wheat flour to make bread.
- Beer: Fonio can also be popped and brewed for beer. In Togo, it is called “tchapalo”.
- Semolina: Recently, acha is now used as a food substitute for semolina – (the wheat product used to make pasta).
The Bottom Line
Acha (Fonio) is a delicious and tasteful cereal with incredible health benefits and nutrition.
However, if you have diabetes, or you are trying to lose weight, then practice portion control with acha as large portions could lead to weight gain.
Also, fonio is naturally deficient in lysine, an important amino acid for building strong bones in the body.
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