Ancient grains have become a health buzzword. This category of grains has become popular as consumers are exploring greater grain variety, seeking nutrition from sources perceived as more wholesome and untouched. The Whole Grains Council explains that, while there is no official definition of ancient grains, they are loosely branded as those grains that can “trace their roots back to the beginnings of time,” and that are mostly the same as they were hundreds of years ago.1 Teff is one of several obscure ancient grains and is becoming increasingly desirable in Western cuisine.
Teff is the main nutrient source for two-thirds of Ethiopians, with a long history in the country beginning with the grain’s domestication 3,000 years ago.2,3 Many Ethiopian runners use teff as a powerful fuel, a concept expanding to runners in the United States, as well.3
Teff is also finding a niche as a nutritious means to add variance to the grain products consumed by Americans. This is evidenced in that, globally, the number of food and drink product launches that contained teff increased by 31 percent from 2014 to 2015.4
Teff has many nutritional qualities that make it a strong contender in the realm of health. Three-quarters cup of the cooked grain boasts impressive nutritional value:5
- 87 milligrams calcium
- Vitamin C
- 5 grams protein
- 4 grams of fiber, as well as resistant starch
- 21% daily value of iron
- 22% daily value of magnesium
- 223% daily value of manganese
- B vitamins
- Low sodium
- Low saturated fat
Teff is also gluten-free, making it a nutrient-dense choice for those who avoid or are unable to tolerate gluten. Furthermore, teff is only available in whole grain form, which is more nutritious than refined grains of any kind. The reasoning behind this is that a teff grain is 1/150 the size of a wheat kernel (about the size of a poppyseed), and is therefore too small to mill.
This combination of gluten-free and whole grain may be a key feature of the grain, as gluten-free products made from refined grains are not required by the FDA to be enriched or fortified as are refined wheat products. Thus, the greater nutritional value of whole grain teff, along with its gluten-free status, make it a tough competitor for applications in gluten-free products to provide a more balanced and complete diet.
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Teff is very versatile due to a low-profile nutty flavor that pairs well with both sweet and savory flavors. It can be consumed as a porridge, perhaps with dried fruit or nuts added, and it can also be used as an ingredient in other foods.
For food items such as cookies, crepes, and baked goods that require minimal rise, teff works very well.5 Food startups are incorporating teff into everyday American foods, such as Love Grain’s pancake mix and teff-based tortilla chips.3
Formulating products to include teff is more involved than a direct replacement of wheat flour with teff flour. Like many gluten-free grains, teff flour does require xanthan gum or another binder to help keep products cohesive. It can also be used in combination with wheat flour if gluten avoidance is not a concern. Additionally, teff resists liquid absorption, a feature that can be challenging with which to work.6
Ethiopia is a main producer of teff, growing about 90 percent of the world’s teff. However, the grain can be difficult to obtain, as Ethiopia is trying to protect its domestic supply to keep prices down for its citizens. In fact, the Ethiopian government only allows the export of teff products like flour and injera, a spongy flatbread. This also contributes to the country retaining jobs for its own workforce.3
Teff has increased in price by almost 20 percent since 2015 as demand has increased, illustrating that Ethiopian government is making wise decisions regarding the export of this progressively valuable crop.7
Due to these challenges in procuring Ethiopian teff, most of the teff consumed in other parts of the world, including North America, is grown in locations such as Idaho, the Netherlands, Australia, and India.3 Increased production outside of Ethiopia is likely to make teff more readily available for commercial applications.
References and resources
- The Whole Grains Council: Ancient Grains
- Food Navigator USA: Teff
- New York Times Well Blog: Is Teff the New Super Grain?
- Food Business News: Ancient grains rising in product development
- Today’s Dietitian: The Richness of Teff
- Food Business News: The gourmet side of gluten-free
- Spend Matters: Could Teff be the New Quinoa?
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