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Grain of the Month: TEFF PDF Print E-mail

by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
April 2016

Teff is an interesting whole grain with quite a history. Despite its small size, teff is a powerhouse of grains. It is actually the world’s tiniest grain, yet provides a wallop of nutrients. Its origin is in the hills of Northeast Africa and it has been around for thousands of years.

Early botanists called it eragrostis tef; it is a species of lovegrass, and the etymology of its name “teff” comes from the meaning “lost” because of its small size. Teff can survive in severe climate conditions, even drought. It is the staple grain of Ethiopia and is used in many traditional dishes there either as a grain or in flour form. Teff is often compared to quinoa, which until the last 10 or so years was also obscure. Quinoa has recently grown quite popular in affluent societies and unfortunately the demand for it has increased its price significantly, which then affected its availability for the local people who grow it. Fortunately the Ethiopian Ministry of Trade and Industry learned from the quinoa experience and decided to impose strict tariffs on teff to protect against a high risk of food insecurity in their country. Unlike quinoa though, teff does now grow in the good old US of A, thanks to an American scientist who worked in Ethiopia and grew to love injera, the staple sourdough bread made from teff flour, and became very knowledgeable about its nutritional benefits. He returned to the States in the mid-1970s and moved to Idaho where he found environmental conditions similar to Ethiopia, so he began to experiment with growing it there. Lo and behold, it continues to be grown there in abundance. Idaho is also better suited to this grain since the farmers are already growing seeds for the gardening industry and have special equipment to handle small seeds, which differs from that used for corn, soybeans, and wheat production. One of the other amazing facts about teff is that a tiny amount produces a large yield: one pound of teff seed can produce a whopping ton of grain! Today there are about 10,000 acres of teff grown in approximately 25 states in this country. Not all the teff grown here is used for human consumption; much of it is for animal fodder. However in the U.S we have so far been limited to about 15 varieties of teff, unlike Ethiopia, which has thousands of varieties. Ethiopian teff comes in a rainbow of colors whereas here it comes in either a reddish brown or white color.

Teff is a whole grain and does not contain gluten. It is high in fiber and leads the grains in its calcium content. It also provides a good amount of magnesium, which helps with the absorption of calcium.