Food and the Environment

Teff: The Tiny but Mighty Grain Worth Knowing About

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13 min read
Summary

Teff is a tiny grain that delivers big-time nutrition. It has a longstanding history, deep cultural significance, and remarkable nutritional value.

Michael Anthony Jerome “Spud” Webb is one of the shortest people ever to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). At 5’6”, he shared the court with players well over a foot taller than himself, holding his own for 12 seasons. But, arguably, the defining moment of Webb’s career was his victory in the 1986 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He defeated his teammate Dominique Wilkins, a 6’8” player whose acrobatic dunks earned him the nickname “the Human Highlight Film.”

While we’re on the subject of small but mighty, I’d like to introduce you to the Spud Webb of grains: the ancient superfood known as teff.

Teff features an impressive nutritional profile, leading some foodies to anoint it “the new quinoa.” You may have consumed teff if you’ve ever had injera — a stretchy Ethiopian flatbread that accompanies a variety of spiced stews and serves as both plate and utensils (spoiler alert: we’re including a recipe for injera in this article). More and more gluten-free products, such as pancake mixes and flours, now contain teff, too.

Let’s talk about what teff is, why it’s increasingly popular around the world, and the pros and cons of its rapid spread outside of its native Africa. Plus, we’ll cover how you can eat it while considering and honoring both ethics and sustainability.

What Is Teff?

brown and ivory teff grain
iStock.com/Marekuliasz

Teff is an incredibly important crop that’s native to Ethiopia. It’s the only fully-domesticated plant of the genus Eragrostis (lovegrass). Because of its poppy-sized seeds, teff often falls under the “small millet” category of grains, which refers to small-seeded grasses that serve as staple crops around the world. The name “teff” may have originated from the word meaning “lost” in the Amharic language because the grains are so tiny — as in “I dropped it, and I will never find it again.” How tiny? Picture a quinoa grain, then shrink it to half its size. Then shrink it some more. Now you’ve got teff.

Like other millets (actually, there’s fierce debate in certain agronomic circles about whether teff is a true millet or not; I choose not to take sides), teff is a type of cereal grain and not a pseudocereal (other seed that’s used like a grain) like quinoa or buckwheat. One of the main differences is that in teff and other cereal grains, starch granules are stored in the endosperm. In pseudocereals, on the other hand, the starch granules are stored in what’s referred to as the perisperm.

Like quinoa, teff comes in a range of colors, from dark reddish-brown to yellow-brown and even ivory. When eaten in Ethiopia, the white or ivory colors are more highly valued, so they’re often served to important guests as a sign of wealth. Inhabitants of the poorer rural areas typically eat the less expensive, darker-colored teff varieties.

Because teff grains are so small, there are only a couple of practical ways to prepare them: either left in their whole form or ground into a whole-grain flour. Since bran and germ make up such a large percentage of the grain, it’s all but impossible to create “white teff” by removing them (as is done with white rice and white wheat flour). However you eat them, teff grains offer a mild, nutty flavor. Some people say they can taste undertones of cocoa in the darker varieties (I sense a huge marketing opportunity).

Teff Nutrition

teff gluten free grain
iStock.com/Marekuliasz

One of the biggest reasons you might consider adding teff to your repertoire of whole grains is its nutritional profile.

Like quinoa, teff is rich in protein and amino acids. It’s a good source of antioxidants as well as vitamins A and C and B vitamins like niacin. You’ll also get an array of minerals from teff, including copper and manganese. Compared to many other grains, teff is even a great source of calcium. A serving of cooked teff can contain nearly five times the amount of calcium as a same-sized serving of cooked oatmeal, for instance.

Teff is also a rich source of fiber, and 20–40% of the carbohydrate content of teff is resistant starch, which benefits digestive health. Teff is also relatively high in protein, so it can be especially helpful for plant-based eaters who must avoid gluten, nuts, and legumes.

You’ll find the following nutrients in a three-fourths cup serving of cooked teff:

  • 6.5 grams of protein
  • 4 grams of fiber
  • 13% of the Daily Value (DV) for thiamin
  • 12% DV for vitamin B6
  • 21% DV for iron
  • 22% DV for magnesium
  • 12% DV for zinc
  • 223% DV for manganese

For more on the health benefits of eating whole grains, including teff, see this article.

A Gluten-Free Grain

Because teff is naturally gluten-free, it often appears in the preparation of gluten-free foods and recipes.

Calcium, magnesium, and iron are minerals that are often deficient in processed gluten-free products. Since teff has high levels of these minerals, plus others, it can be a great addition to gluten-free diets. Teff also retains its high fiber content even when processed into flour. One ounce of teff flour contains around five grams of fiber, whereas the same amount of all-purpose (white) wheat flour only has one gram.

Teff is a highly valued grain for people with celiac disease, as well as anyone wishing to eat gluten-free either out of preference or an intolerance. And especially in places where hunger and malnutrition are a problem, teff can be a life-saving solution, providing a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and protein.

Teff’s Importance to Ethiopia and Eritrea

African woman using a handmade strainer to prepare the flour
iStock.com/Poco-Bw

Teff is an ancient grain, like farro, quinoa, spelt, amaranth, and millet. By ancient, I mean that the modern varieties of these crops are genetically very similar to those grown thousands of years ago. Teff is native to Ethiopia and may have originated sometime around 4000–1000 B.C.E. Ethiopia is now home to nearly 4,000 varieties (or cultivars) of teff.

In Ethiopian cuisine, teff commonly gets used in traditional foods and beverages. Some of these include porridge, traditional alcoholic drinks like tella and katikala, and injera (a thin, fermented, pancake-like bread often served with a spiced stew made with meat or pulses, called “wot”).

Teff plays a vital role in food security, nutrition, and income generation for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians and Eritreans (residents of Eritrea, the country just north of Ethiopia) eat it every day — sometimes three times a day — in almost all regions and tribes. The Whole Grains Council estimates that Ethiopians get about two-thirds of their dietary protein from teff.

Economically, the teff crop is a source of livelihood for nearly 43% of all the country’s farmers, most of whom are economically poor.

Teff is also an important source of nutrition for East African athletes. In particular, injera is a major source of energy for elite Ethiopian distance runners. It’s widely believed that the iron in teff may help offset iron losses that can occur from the fragility of hemoglobin-carrying red blood cells that’s common among these athletes. Elite athletes often regard teff as a “super-grain” because of its high mineral content.

Teff and Biopiracy

The term “biopiracy” refers to unethical commercial exploitation of native biological materials (like plants) without providing fair financial compensation to citizens of the country of origin. Unfortunately, there’s a significant biopiracy concern around Ethiopian teff.

A Dutch company holds a patent on processed teff flour. And in some European countries, no teff flour can be sold without the payment of royalties to the Netherlands. How did this happen? Apparently, the company in question was conducting research on teff alongside Ethiopia, which involved sharing the genetic information needed for commercial use and expansion.

In 2004, however, the Dutch company filed a patent by itself and was granted a monopoly on many European teff products by the European Patent Office. The loophole that allowed for this was the fact that technology turns teff grains into teff flour, which makes it a patentable invention. (As a side note, this opens up a bigger can of worms, as things like DNA sequencing and other technologies are being used to “process” native plants and strip the countries of origin of the financial rights associated with the commercial use of these plants). At the end of the day, teff is an Ethiopian staple food — and has been for centuries. And ethically, it seems that’s where any teff-related patent rights should stay.

Under this particular patent, Ethiopian teff wasn’t even allowed in certain European countries. That ruling has since been overturned in the Netherlands, but still holds in a few European countries. As a result, the Dutch teff patent has stripped millions of Ethiopian farmers of their rights. From 2006–2015 there was a ban on exporting teff out of Ethiopia for understandable fear of additional biopiracy.

The Ethiopian government also wanted to make sure that there was a sufficient teff supply for its own domestic market. There were concerns that if it relinquished control, teff might suffer the same fate as South American quinoa, which has been transformed from a staple to a cash crop. Government leaders also didn’t want local populations to have to compete with wealthy foreigners, a market that threatened to raise prices and render teff unaffordable to the people who have subsisted on it for countless generations.

Is Teff an Ethical Crop?

teff
iStock.com/A-Apell

Currently, over 90% of the world’s teff is grown in Ethiopia, but interest in (and demand for) the grain is spreading globally. In response, Ethiopia is allowing the export of milled and processed teff, but only those crops grown on 48 selected farms covering just 6,000 hectares. Aside from keeping most domestically-grown teff for the Ethiopian people, Ethiopia also doesn’t have the infrastructure in place right now to expand its exports to meet rising demand. In fact, much of the grain grown there is harvested by hand.

With its growing popularity, teff is also being grown in other countries, though, including the US, South Africa, Argentina, Spain, Ukraine, and Israel.

Since Ethiopia exports so little teff, much of US demand is now being filled by domestic companies, including The Teff Company, founded by Wayne Carlson. Carlson brought the grain back to the US with him after traveling to Ethiopia in the 1970s. Since then, he has convinced farmers in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada to grow teff for his company. Many of his customers are people of the Ethiopian and Eritrean diasporas in the US, who want a source of teff that allows them to make familiar, traditional foods.

For now, if you can find teff exported from Ethiopia, that’s a lovely way to directly support the farmers who grow it — many of whom are extremely poor. For a lower carbon footprint (and lower prices, generally), you can also opt to support domestically-grown teff. Look for organic, if you can, to ensure lower pesticide residues and more sustainable agricultural practices.

Is It Sustainable?

teff the cereal of Ethiopia
iStock.com/Mtcurado

In Ethiopia, most of the teff crop is produced by smallholder farms. Even when it’s grown as a monoculture, the size of each plantation is usually quite limited, which means that habitats and biodiversity can continue thriving in surrounding areas.

Teff also plays an important role in sustainable agriculture, thanks to its ability to grow in unpredictable climates and challenging circumstances. For example, teff grows fairly well with limited amounts of rain, bounces back after drought, and grows to maturity fast after decent rainfall.

It is sometimes used as a “rescue” or emergency crop, replacing another crop in the middle of the season when the original crop didn’t grow. Teff is also used as a “catch crop” because it can be grown quickly in soil that would otherwise go unused for some period of time, maintaining soil structure and preventing erosion in the meantime.

Teff is a fairly low consumer of water, which is helpful in places like California, where persistent water shortages threaten many agricultural practices. The tiny grains also cook quickly, which cuts down on the amount of fuel required to prepare them.

Since very little teff is exported from Ethiopia, it often has a smaller carbon footprint than other grains because you’re more likely to find it grown closer to home (you can identify where your teff product came from by finding the country of origin label on the packaging).

Where Can You Buy Teff?

You may be able to find teff flour in the baking aisle of natural food stores, as well as some specialty food stores. You might also find teff products in the cereal/breakfast aisle, or teff as an ingredient in chips, crackers, and other products in the snack aisle.

Sold as a grain, look for teff with the other grains; you’re far more likely to see it in a natural food store or African market than a regular grocery store. You can also purchase whole teff, teff products, and teff flour online from a number of retailers.

If you’re fortunate to have any nearby, you might want to patronize Ethiopian restaurants to taste authentic teff dishes and support the Ethiopian diaspora.

Additionally, some brands that source teff directly from Ethiopia and support the farmers there include the following:

  • Berhan sells both whole grain teff and teff flour, in brown and ivory varieties. It was founded by an Ethiopian-Canadian family with the mission of rediscovering teff, honoring their ancestors, and sharing the benefits and uses of the grain with more of the world.
  • Ethio Organics sells teff-based vegan pancake mixes. These include combinations of teff with oat flour, flaxseed, and almond flour, as well as a 100% teff mix. This company was founded by three female friends who were born and raised in Ethiopia and now live in Canada. They’re committed to fair-trade practices and work in partnership with women who are small business owners in Ethiopia, particularly those struggling with financial hardships.
  • Wild For makes teff chips with the goal of building the teff chip market in the US. They have two missions: to connect African teff farmers to international markets and to make wholesome tasty foods to nourish consumers. Their teff chips come in tasty flavors like Sea Salt and Sweet & Smokey BBQ, and they’re vegan, Non-GMO Project Verified, and kosher.

Of course, if you like, you can also find a wide variety of teff products (most of them grown in the US) for sale at relatively low prices on Amazon.

How to Prepare and Use Teff

teff flour close-up
iStock.com/Rgallianos

Teff can be prepared like a whole grain. And teff flour can be used to make a variety of baked goods at home. Before cooking teff, rinse it thoroughly. Since the grains are so tiny, line a colander or sieve with cheesecloth or a tea towel to make sure you don’t lose grains down the sink.

Teff can be used to make things like porridge and breakfast bowls, breads, injera and pancakes, savory grain dishes, and stews.

To cook teff as a whole grain, two of the best methods are to prepare it as a savory pilaf or as a breakfast cereal. To make a pilaf, add one cup of teff to one-and-a-half cups of boiling salted water, reduce to a simmer, and cook covered for 8–10 minutes until the water is absorbed. Similar to making couscous or rice, you can then remove it from the heat, let it sit in the covered pan for about 10 more minutes, then fluff it gently with a fork. To enjoy teff as a porridgy cereal, add a cup of grains to four cups of boiling salted water, then cover and simmer for 15–20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

If you want to bake with teff flour, it works well as an addition to wheat flour. If you replace about a quarter of the wheat flour in a recipe with teff, you’ll end up with a delicious and relatively light result (while also adding extra nutrition). The more teff you use, the denser your baked creation will be.

Making injera — the Ethiopian flatbread mentioned earlier — involves a longer process than simply baking with the flour. A mixture of flour, warm water, and salt needs to sit and ferment for up to 48 hours. After that, the batter cooks much like a pancake, except thinner, spongier, and stretchier. (Nope, this wasn’t the recipe — that’s still to come).

Teff Recipes

If you love a warm and soothing breakfast, then you’ll want to jump straight into this Apple Cinnamon Teff Porridge, which is naturally sweet, super nourishing, and very comforting. Swap out that oatmeal for teff, and let us know your thoughts! Indulge in traditional Ethiopian fare when you make this aromatic Misir Wot and scoop it up with spongy Homemade Injera. Plus, we have a bonus recipe for you! We couldn’t resist sharing a Sweet ‘n Nutty Teff Bread made with teff flour and oats. Teff lends its naturally nutty and sweet flavors, making this bread delicious with nut butter and homemade fruit preserves. Yum!

1. Apple Cinnamon Teff Porridge

If a warm, comforting cereal is your breakfast jam and you haven’t yet tried teff, then we highly recommend giving this Apple Cinnamon Teff Porridge a go. Teff is naturally sweet and nutty on its own, so you don’t need much in the way of added sweetness to make this porridge delicious. Add apples, cinnamon, dates, and walnuts for more naturally sweet and nutty flavors. And, if you’d like it a bit more sweet, just a touch of maple will do.

2. Misir Wot

Misir wot (also spelled wat) is a traditional Ethiopian stew filled with lentils, vegetables, and layers of fragrant spices. Its aromatic spice blend, berbere, often includes more than ten spices such as coriander, cumin, fenugreek, chili powder, and paprika. Enjoy this flavorful stew with traditional injera (or, if you prefer, on a bed of brown rice).

3. Homemade Injera

Injera, a fermented flatbread with a delightfully sour flavor and spongy texture, is traditionally made with teff flour. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, injera is a staple food, often enjoyed with stews and used as both the plate and cutlery. It’s simple to prepare, but it’s good to have a little patience while you wait for it to ferment at room temperature for two days. Trust us, it’s worth the wait!

4. Sweet ‘n Nutty Teff Bread

If you’re looking for a moist, dense, gluten-free bread with a little bit of nuttiness and a touch of sweetness, you’ve found it here. Teff is a wonderful, nutrient-rich substitute for traditional flour. Gluten-free oats give this bread some extra texture, while the nuts add a little crunch. What’s more, this bread is really simple to make!

Teff Is Terrific — With Considerations

Teff is a highly nutritious gluten-free grain that can benefit people with or without celiac disease. It’s an important grain in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where farmers rely on it for their livelihoods, and most people rely on it heavily for nutrition. It’s a relatively sustainable crop that can grow quickly, and that is fairly drought-tolerant. Although teff is reaching other countries like the US, it’s still a highly protected food in Ethiopia, and for good reason. Overall, it’s best to enjoy teff that’s either sourced directly from its country of origin (to help support farmers there) or sourced from a domestic grower if possible. While it probably won’t help you win any slam dunk competitions, you can still attain great nutritional heights with teff on your team.

Tell us in the comments:

  • Have you ever tried teff (or a teff product)? What did you use it for?
  • What are some ways you could use teff flour in your kitchen?
  • Do you have other favorite ancient grains?

Feature Image: iStock.com/Marilyna

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