Millet, Teff, and Fonio

Millet, Teff, and Fonio

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to title this entry, as it’s a confusing topic. I had thought of calling it “African grains,” but some of the grains we’re going to talk about are cultivated in large areas of Asia (in fact, most of the production is concentrated in Asia), and sorghum is an African cereal that has little in common with these. I also considered titling it “small grains,” but the term “small” is quite ambiguous. Lastly, I thought about titling it “millet,” but many people distinguish some of the grains we’re studying from millets. That said, let’s see what we’re going to talk about.

What are they?

In this entry, we’ll discuss some cereals that are predominantly cultivated in Africa and some areas of Asia, small in size compared to other cereals, and often grouped under the designation of millet.

The term “millet” usually encompasses the following cereals: Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), Finger millet (Eleusine coracana), Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum), Foxtail millet (Setaria italica), fonio (Digitaria exilis), teff (Eragrostis tef), Japanese millet (Echinochloa esculenta), and kodo millet (Paspalum scrobiculatum). Although India is the main producer of millet, and other Asian regions have significant production (such as China and Russia in its Asian part), this production varies greatly depending on the type of millet. For example, Pearl millet is mainly produced in Sub-Saharan Africa and northwest India. Proso millet concentrates its production in Asia, mainly in India and China. Foxtail millet also focuses on Asia, specifically in China, Japan, India, and some neighbouring countries. Finger millet is concentrated in Africa, particularly in the eastern and central parts (around Lake Victoria), although it is also produced in southern India and Sri Lanka. Teff is mainly produced in Ethiopia and fonio in West Africa. Finally, Japanese millet and kodo millet are produced in Southeast Asia and India.

Among the different types of millet, almost half of the world’s production is pearl millet. Proso millet and foxtail millet account for slightly less than half of pearl millet’s global production, and finger millet accounts for almost half of these. The rest of the millets have lower and more localized productions. Thus, generally, when millet flour is mentioned in Europe or Western countries, it usually refers to pearl millet flour.

The main way of using these cereals in their countries of origin is for making porridge or similar products. These products can vary in consistency, depending on the amount of water used for their preparation. In West Africa, they also make couscous-like products from pearl millet and fonio. And in some countries, flatbreads are prepared, with or without prior fermentation. In this sense, injera is well known, a flatbread made from teff flour after fermentation, which forms the basis of the diet in some areas of Ethiopia. But there are also similar breads in Sudan (Kisra) or in southern India and Sri Lanka (Dosa). These flours can also be included in the formulation of unleavened bread, such as roti in India. For the preparation of some of these products, the cereal undergoes a milling process to remove its outer parts. As we already know, this reduces its nutritional quality but improves its organoleptic quality.

Nutritional Quality (or the appearance of it)

Regarding the nutritional quality of these cereals, we must not forget that they are cereals and have a composition very similar to that of other cereals. They are rich in carbohydrates, with a protein content close to 10-11%, and a protein with nutritional quality similar to other cereals, and therefore somewhat deficient in lysine. Since they are small grains, they are commonly ground in their whole form, so these types of flours will be richer in fibre, vitamins, and minerals than the white flours of other cereals. But this difference is more related to being whole flours than to being derived from different cereals. Thus, if we compare them with other whole flours, such as wheat flour, the differences are minimized. In general, their content of certain minerals and vitamins will depend on the type of millet and the type of milling, but they are not superior to those of other cereals.


Various systems can be used for milling millet, ranging from roller mills to stone mills or hammer mills. As we have mentioned, most millet flours are whole, so the outer parts of the grain are not removed. Pearl millet has a high oil content compared to other cereals. This oil is concentrated in the germ, like in the rest of the cereals. Thus, if whole flours are produced, they will quickly become rancid, so it is necessary to give them a heat treatment to stabilize them. Generally, millet flours marketed in Western countries, for this reason, are toasted millet flours.

Interest and Trends

In recent years, teff and its flour have gained some popularity in Spain. This is because in some areas of Spain, this cereal is being cultivated, which entered Europe through a Dutch company. Most of the teff consumed outside of Ethiopia is consumed by the Ethiopian immigrant population, who miss this product. But, as in other cases, it seems that anything rare or less known has to be better nutritionally, and it has gained some fame in certain circles. Something similar is happening with fonio, which in some publications has been associated with the word superfood. It should be made clear that both are gluten-free cereals and are usually marketed in their whole form, which is a nutritional advantage. But beyond that, they have no great advantage over other whole grains. Additionally, the flavour of these flours is often stronger with greenish tones, and their cost is higher, so in most cases, they are incorporated in small amounts to avoid worsening the organoleptic quality. Therefore, in a gluten-free product, it will obviously be very interesting to use these flours instead of cornstarch or white rice flour, which are much less nutritionally interesting. But if they are only used in 5%, they do not provide anything remarkable to the final product. And if used in larger quantities, they reduce the organoleptic quality of the final product.

In general, these are flours that can be interesting in small proportions, as they can help mask any strange flavour in gluten-free products. But in large proportions, they are expensive flours, with strong flavours that most people are not accustomed to, and that do not provide any significant difference in nutritional terms. That said, we should not dismiss the interest of certain consumers in these flours, due to the belief that they are healthier. And we must not forget the placebo effect, which means that people who consume something they believe is beneficial to their health feel better. Therefore, there seems to be a market niche for these flours and their inclusion in certain products aimed at this type of consumer. And we should not rule out that some of the lesser-known millets may emerge as the great new discovery in the future, in search of the less known and more exotic, which with good marketing can be the new superfood (but scarcely based on scientific evidence).

Further information:

Barretto, R; Buenavista, RM; Rivera, JL; Wang, SY; Prasad, PVV; Siliveru, K (2020) Teff (Eragrostis tef) processing, utilization and future opportunities: a review. International Journal of Food Science and Technology.

Saleh, ASM; Zhang, Q; Chen, J; Shen, Q (2013) Millet grains: Nutritional quality, processing, and potential health benefits. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 12:281-295.

Zhu, F. (2018) Chemical composition and food uses of teff (Eragrostis tef). Food Chemistry, 239:402-415.

Zhu, F. (2020) Fonio grains: Physicochemical properties, nutritional potential, and food applications. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 19:3365-3389.

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