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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Teff - an obscure grain of exceptional nutritional content

Teff: Obscure Grain w/ exceptional nutritional content

by JP Saleeby, MD

As it is the "flavor of the day" nutrients come and go. Whether it is Big Pharma promoting omega 3-fatty acids this month (as if they were just discovered yesterday) or the top vitamin retailer singing the glories of chia seeds, many times these things have been around and utilized for ages by ancient people. Many dietary supplements will wax and wane in popularity, but the fact remains they are often crucial in our diet and well being in the future as they are touted today and were in the past, lest we forget them and move onto the next big craze. Teff for example is a rather obscure grain in the West. It is an annual grass and species of lovegrass which is native to the northern plains of Ethiopia. Teff has it origins as a cultivated grain in Northeastern Africa as far back as 4000 BC, having the hardiness as a plant to adapt to environments ranging from wet and waterlogged soil to that of drought stressed earth.

This plant is not only limited to the lands in Africa, for now it is cultivated in far away places such as India, Australia, Bolivia, Peru and yes even in the USA. There are test fields growing in Kansas right now and it has actually been raised with economic viability in Idaho. Move over potato! Teff can even be harvested successfully in higher colder latitudes such as Alaska due to its ability to be cultivated at steeper elevations and with shorter growing seasons. While the seeds are used to make breads and porridge, the hay is a great feed for livestock as it conveys the same nutritional components.

The attractiveness of this plant is simple; it is rather nutritious. It is high in fiber and iron and provides a rich source of protein and calcium. Additionally, this grain is high in phosphorus, copper, magnesium, thiamin and lysine. In fact it contains all eight essential amino acids. Similar to millet and quinoa in the way it is cooked the Teff seed is, however, much smaller and requires less time to cook. Less time cooking equates to less energy expenditure. So while it may be the food for the masses some time in the future, it will also be a "green grain" for its energy conserving features.

The name Teff is derived from the word tef, from Ethio-Semitic roots meaning "lost." Given the very small size of the grain, it is often lost when scooped up in the hand. In the book "Lost Crops of Africa" published by the National Research Council in 1996, "
Teff has as much, or even more, food value than the major grains: wheat, barley, and maize, for instance. However, this is probably because it is always eaten in the whole-grain form: the germ and bran are consumed along with the endosperm."

Something worth noting about Teff is that it contains no gluten. With the lack of gluten there are not issues with abdominal bloating and gastrointestinal symptoms in those folks having gluten allergies or Celiac Disease. While Teff comes in colors from white to brown, consumers tend to prefer the white despite the fact that it is rather bland in comparison to the red and brown versions and also a bit lower in nutritional composition. This must come from years and years of desiring the "white rice" and "white bleached wheat" loafs of bread Westerners have grown so accustom.

Nutritional Information (Teff/ Eragrostis tef)

Moisture (g)




Food energy (Kc)




Protein (g)




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Fiber (g)




Ash (g)




Vitamin A (RE)




Thiamin (mg)




Riboflavin (mg)




Niacin (mg)


Vitamin C (mg)


Calcium (mg)


Chloride (mg)


Chromium (μg)


Copper (mg)


Iron (mg)


Magnesium (mg)


Manganese (mg)


Phosphorus (mg)


Potassium (mg)


Sodium (mg)


Zinc (mg)


Teff grains are reported to contain 9-11 percent protein, an amount slightly higher than in normal sorghum, maize, or oats. However, samples tested in the United States have consistently shown even higher protein levels: 14-15 %.

The protein's digestibility is probably high because the main protein fractions—albumin, glutelin, and globulin—are the most digestible types. The albumin fraction is particularly rich in lysine. Judging by the response from Americans allergic to wheat, teff is essentially free of gluten, the protein that causes bread to rise. Nonetheless, teff used in injera does ''rise" [due in part to the fermentation process].

-From "Lost Crops of Africa" Vol. 1;Grains (1996)


My wife and I recently partook in an Ethiopian dinner complete with Injera, the bread made of teff. Here teff is mixed with water and allowed to ferment for a few days, it is then poured over a hot clay plate (traditionally, called a mogogo) which is usually placed over an open fire. The product is a crepe like bread, spongy in nature and with a distinct but subtle sour flavor. Again the white (nech), red (kay) and brown/black (tikur) variants exist, the darker colored breads having a more substantial flavor. Interestingly the bread acts not only as "bread" but a means of serving Ethiopian food. Traditionally, Ethiopian meals are comprised of stews of beef or lamb, with salads and vegetables all served on a "plate" of Injera. The Injera is torn into smaller pieces and used as a "utensil" to pick up and eat the food all the while absorbing the juices the foods produce. The meal is over literally when not only the food is consumed, but when the plate and utensils are consumed as well.


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