A focus on traditional African carbohydrate food.

By Modupe Peters

This month’s instalment will hopefully inform you on the important topic of carbohydrates and our African traditional foods. We should be proud that our African foods are versatile, varied and very healthy. Of course, this is only the case when we follow advice and guidance on healthy eating and living a healthy lifestyle.

Traditional African food commonly known as ‘swallows’ are great sources of carbohydrates. Examples are yam, wheat, oats, plantain or green banana, cassava, and rice. Each of these food are milled into powders and cooked or made with hot water. This cooking involves mixing and pounding into a soft easy to swallow texture, hence, the name ‘swallow’. Although some people still prefer to chew their ‘swallow.’ The more powder used in making the ‘swallow’ the more the amount of carbohydrate that is being consumed.
The traditional way of eating African ‘swallows’ is without cutlery, by using your hands or fingers. A morsel of the soft textured carbohydrate is often dipped into a soup or stew and swallowed with minimal or no chewing! In the popular Yoruba dialect of Nigeria, it is often called okele, or ilo ihe in the Igbo tongue. Both words refer to a bolus or ball of food.

What are carbohydrates?

This group of foods provides us with glucose, which is the body’s main source of energy and the brain’s preferred energy source. There are 2 main types of carbohydrates:

  1. Starchy carbohydrates: Such as yam, bread, rice, noodles, sweet potato, ‘swallow’ foods: eba (cassava), fufu (either made from plantain/cassava/yam/oats), and semolina/semovita made from wheat. Having a high fibre variety of carbohydrate will ensure this group of foods are more slowly broken down in our bodies. The glycaemic index of carbohydrate foods is important (this is covered later in this article).
  2. Sugar carbohydrates: Examples include biscuits, cakes, fruits and juices, table sugar, honey, jam, sweets, and sugary fizzy drinks. These should be included in small amounts as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Enjoying healthy swallows

Precisely about two years ago, we published an article on a popular African swallow-pounded yam. In the article, we reported on our research of over 10 UK brands of powdered ‘pounded yam.’ Our results showed that only about 70% actually contained any yam at all. Many were packed with ‘fillers’ such as ground rice, farina, potato powder and even annatto (food colouring). We, therefore, encourage people to use less of the milled powders – and move to making their ‘swallow’ at home by actually boiling the yam until soft and creating a fresh pounded yam using a wooden spoon or even with aid of a food mixer. The advantage here is a more authentic ‘swallow’ that is unadulterated. By doing this, portion control is easier and there is less risk of adding excess carbohydrate due to overuse of powder. The fresh swallow also yields a more fibre-rich content.

Portion control and swallows

In a traditional African diet, starchy carbohydrate foods form the basis of our meals – there is nothing wrong with this really. However, we generally have excessively large portions of these foods, and here lies the problem. We can enjoy our eba (garri), pounded yam, and amala as part of a healthy balanced diet but we need to consider the portions we consume. An ideal portion will be a small fist size with lots of vegetables such as spinach or kale soup /okra soup/bitter leaf soup/ogbono soup. When making melon soup (egusi), try adding some leaves i.e. spinach/water leaves/greens to increase the fibre content of the meal.

‘Swallows’ made from wheat/green banana/oats are becoming popular because they have a great as they have a higher fibre content. However, the ideal serving portion still remains about a small fist size.

Glycaemic Index (GI)

This is a measure of the rate of absorption of glucose from carbohydrate digestion. Those absorbed quicker are called high GI foods and those absorbed slower are the low GI foods. Examples of low GI are mentioned above, whilst examples of high GI foods include fruit juices, sugar, honey, biscuits, sweets, white bread. We want to encourage more low GI foods such as wholegrain/multigrain bread, whole wheat pasta, sweet potato, and oats. For our swallows, this is where making pounded yam from yam instead of ‘yam powder’ is important.

The type and amount of carbohydrates we eat determines the rise in our blood glucose level; the slowly the carbohydrate is broken down, the steadier the rise in blood glucose level. Hence, this includes more low GI/high fibre options that will be more beneficial for blood glucose levels, helping to keep us fuller for longer and promoting overall health.

Apart from being a source of fuel for the many cells of our body, carbohydrates are good sources of fibre, B-Vitamins, calcium and iron in our diet. The fibre makes them particularly good for bowel health too.

How much carbohydrate to eat?

Carbohydrate requirements are dependent on age, gender, weight, and physical activity level. Science does not support the popular belief that carbohydrate foods cause more weight gain than other foods. It is recommended that carbohydrates contribute about 50% of total energy needs. Some people may however prefer to have a lower carbohydrate intake that has been shown to be beneficial for long-term blood glucose control in people with diabetes.


We can still enjoy our ‘swallow’ as part of a healthy balanced diet. I particularly love my garri (eba) with okra soup. There is a need to control the amount eaten; an ideal serving will be a small fist size with lots of soup, using less powder to make up the ‘swallow’. Hence, the finished product should be soft and very easy to swallow. Remember the greater the amount of powder used, the more carbohydrate that is being consumed, hence a steeper rise in blood glucose level.

Whichever way or how you eat your ‘swallow,’ I would like you to ponder on this Bible passage;

“I have the right to do anything’, you say, but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but not everything is constructive.”

1 Corithians 10:23 (NIV)

Be constructive, be blessed, and be purposeful!