For “hungry rice”, which is the European name given to the local grain popularly known as Fonio or Acha, the saying that good things come in small packages is especially apt.
Botanically known as Digitaria exilis and Digitaria iburua, Folio is a whole grain, with amazingly tiny seeds. And contrary to the misconception of some European scientists about this oldest African cereal that it is only consumed by hungry people (hence the term “hungry rice”), studies have established that Fonio contains nine essential amino acids with a lower glycaemic index (GI) than other grains. It this serves as an important protein source, with natural properties of cholesterol-lowering, cancer-risk-reduction, and cardiovascular diseases-lowering potentials.
In a study titled: “Nutritional and Health Benefits of Acha (Digitaria exilis) in the Human Diet – A Review”, and published in African Journals Online, the researchers found that the GI of Acha meal was low in both Type II diabetics and healthy subjects. “The glycaemic load of the Acha (D exilis) meal is just enough for control but high for the Type II diabetic subjects”.
To arrive at the findings, the scientists got ten volunteer Type II diabetics and seven healthy subjects for the metabolic studies. They provided 50 grams carbohydrate of Acha meal and okra soup as test food, while 50 grams of glucose served as the reference food.
The blood glucose responses were used to calculate the area under the blood glucose curve (AUC) to determine the GI of the meal. The percentage of carbohydrate in the meal multiplied by the glycaemic index was equal to the glycaemic load. The glycaemic index in Type II diabetics and healthy subjects were found to be 49 and 35 respectively.
Researchers found the glycaemic load of Acha meal to be 17.5 for control groups and 24.5 in Type II diabetic subjects. Thus, they arrived at the conclusion that the GI of Acha meal is low in both Type II diabetics and healthy subjects. The glycaemic load (GL) of the Acha (D exilis) meal is just enough for control and high for the Type II diabetic subjects.
Though they found the GI of the Acha meal to be low, the scientists explained further that the GL was high for Type II diabetics, noting that despite the consumption of Acha by Type II diabetics, their blood glucose could not be controlled because they regularly consume it in their homes more than the portion size served in the research. Therefore, they advised diabetics to adjust the quantity of Acha (D. exilis) meal they consume to the proportion served in the study for effective result.
Descriptions of Fonio
Another research published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology and titled: “Developments on the cereal grains Digitaria exilis (acha) and Digitaria iburua (iburu)”, revealed various definitions of Acha as submitted at international summits.
Attempting to define Digitaria exilis, they classified it as whole grain. According to them, “Wholegrain is defined as intact and/or processed (e.g., de-hulled, cleaned, ground, cracked, flaked or the like) grains, where the fractions endosperm, bran and germ are present in the same proportion as found in the least processed traditional forms of the edible grain kernel of the same species.”
Another definition says that “whole grains shall consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components—the starchy endosperm, germ and bran—are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis” – which well describes Fonio.
Prior to this time, information about Fonio had been scanty in the country, with the exception of the northern areas, where the grain is being cultivated. Another reason for the nonavailability of data about Fonio was due to neglect, as some Europeans spread misleading information about it.
During an interview at the just concluded International Trade Fair, held at the TBS, Lagos, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Kebbi State, Malam Mohammad Lawal, revealed that Acha can grow and mature within the period of three months, adding however that it is best produced during the raining season and can be produced under irrigation.
He further explained that Fonio can be prepared in a variety of ways, including white rice and stew, jollof rice, tuwo and pap, noting that it will only take 30 minutes to make it ready for consumption.
Lawal also mentioned the reason for the “hungry rice” name, saying it arose from misconception that it is only consumed by people who could not get or afford the more common variants of rice.
According to him, “Many of the health issues we have in Nigeria can actually be resolved with the abundance of natural foods God has blessed us with in this country. Overdependence on foreign foods won’t help us; rather, it will cause more problems than good”, he quipped.
The permanent secretary, who noted that Kebbi State Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources was willing to sign a mutual agreement with the Lagos State government, disclosed that the Kebbi government would ship more of the packaged Fonio rice to Lagos, once the terms of agreement were determined.
Nutritional facts of Fonio
According to a public Health nutritionist at the Department of Health Promotion and Education, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, Dr Emmanuel Oyewole, like other cereals, Fonio is rich in carbohydrate which makes it a good energy-giving food.
Oyewole stated that Fonio can be closely compared to sorghum, adding that its grains also supply the human body with good amount of Vitamin B and minerals, like calcium, iron and phosphorus.
“It offers the body good amount of amino acids, because nearly 10 per cent of the cereal by weight comprises of protein,” he said.
The nutritionist further explained that Fonio’s protein profile suggests that it offers a spectrum of essential amino acids. When compared to the amino acid profile of eggs, it showed that while eggs offer more lysine compared to Fonio, Fonio is superior in other amino acids like isoleucine, valine, tryptophan, theronine, phenylalanine, leucien, cystine and mentionine.
When compared with other cereals, he noted that Fonio is rich in sulphur-containing amino acids – methionine and cystine. “All these make fonio a nutritious cereal. In the book, Lost Crops of Africa: Grains, by the National Research Council, it is mentioned that the proteins in the grain are not easily extractable but are easier to digest, compared to other millets. Fonio does not contain any glutenin or gliadin proteins. In other words, it is gluten free”, he stated.
Health benefits of Fonio
Dr Oyewole, through his various studies on Fonio, has compiled the following health benefits, as corroborated by other findings.
Fonio is good for diabetes
Fonio has been long used as a diabetic food. Fonio has low glycemic index. It is absorbed in the body slowly and, thus, its effect on blood sugar is gradual. Fonio is also believed to have insulin-secreting properties, as well as aiding in controlling blood sugar levels in the body.
Early lab studies also suggested benefits of Fonio in diabetes due to its low GI compared to other daily foods. Fonio also provides the body with minerals, chromium and sulphur-containing amino acids which are believed to reduce inflammation and diabetes.
Fonio aids cardiovascular function
Fonio has small seeds and is generally consumed in dehusked but whole form. Research suggests that consuming whole grain reduces risk of cardiovascular disorders, including heart diseases and stroke. The barn and germ of fonio are rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which help to keep our heart healthy.
Fonio is Gluten free
Many people today suffer from Celiac disease. This is due to the intolerance of their body system towards gluten. The only way to treat this disease is to avoid gluten food. Most of the energy food we eat, including wheat, corn etc., contain gluten. Fonio offers a good alternative of gluten-free energy food to people.
Fonio aids digestion
Fonio is easier to digest and is recommended for children and elderly people. It has ample amount of fibres which are required to keep the digestive tract smooth. It helps in bowel movements and prevents constipation. Fonio is believed to stimulate appetite and secretion of digestive juices. In some parts of Africa, Fonio is offered as food to people suffering from stomach problems.
Fonio as energy food
Fonio has been used as a staple food to meet the daily energy requirement of many communities. It offers 3.6 calories per gram of grain, which is comparable to other cereals. Still, it is easy to digest and does not sharply increase blood sugar levels. It is becoming popular as a breakfast cereal in Europe, as it is filling and easier to cook.
Journal of Food Science and Technology 2011 Jun; 48(3): 251–259
Developments on the cereal grains Digitaria exilis (acha) and Digitaria iburua (iburu)
African Journals Online titled: “Nutritional and Health Benefits of Acha (Digitaria exilis) in the Human Diet – A Review”
Researchgate.net:”Glycaemic Index and Load of Acha in Healthy and Diabetic Subjects”