Monday, 6 March 2017

What is Teff?

As awareness of gluten intolerance grows, and our diets become more multicultural (so, not boring!), alternative grains such as quinoa and amaranth have gone from unknown to relatively mainstream. Now, we have a new addition to the formerly bland Anglo-Western diet: teff, a gluten-free grain originating from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although it has been used in African and Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries, only in the last few years has there been a market for it in the West.

So, why eat teff? As above, teff is another gluten-free grain, making it safe to eat for those of us with coeliac disease or a gluten sensitivity. It has a mild, nutty flavour, and can thrive even in harsh climates, a possible win for Australian farmers who would like to try growing it. Teff is not just a filler food, like white wheat bread, either. Among other essential amino acids, teff is an excellent source of lysine, where most other grains have a low lysine content. As for minerals, teff is rich in potassium, calcium and iron, and is also an unusual grain in the case of its vitamin C content. And unlike conventional, super-processed gluten-free bread, teff is high in resistant starch and has a low glycaemic index (GI).

Injera, a traditional bread made from teff.
Source: Maurice Chedel
And what do these nutrient stats mean for our health? As a nutritious food with a higher tolerance for harsh conditions than most other grains, teff has the potential to benefit everyone, from American hipsters with IT careers to African farmers. First, the fact that it is a tough grain, and considered to be very resistant to insects and storage pests, means that it can be stored using traditional methods instead of those using chemical protection. Therefore, it is easier to grow teff organically. Teff has an estimated protein content between 8.7-11%, and is comparable to wheat, barley, maize and pearl millet; while it is superior to brown rice, rye and sorghum. Its amino acid balance has been described as comparable to eggs, despite a relatively lower lysine and isoleucine content (lysine is still present in higher levels compared to other grains). This is important for poorer people, who cannot always afford animal sources of protein as easily as grains. When compared to other grain in the case of mineral content, teff usually stands out for its levels of calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, phosphorous and copper. "Usually", because sorghum contains a similar amount of magnesium to teff. Calcium is necessary to help prevent osteoporosis, as well as colon cancer according to at least one population study. Research in Ethiopia has also found higher haemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein) in the blood of teff consumers, and an association between the grain and lack of iron deficiency-anaemia. It has even been shown that people who eat teff do not develop hookworm anaemia, even when infected with the parasite. Malaria is another issue in many areas of Africa, but a higher haemoglobin status helps to prevent being affected by the disease. And besides vitamin C, which is present at 88mg per 100 grams of teff, the cereal also contains vitamins B1, B2, B3 and plant equivalents of vitamin A.

But are we stealing food from impoverished African families? Several years ago, a similar story about quinoa circulated, shaming anyone who dared to eat quinoa and simultaneously exist in a wealthy nation. But the truth is much more positive and nuanced: farmers usually do set aside some of their quinoa harvest for personal use; and higher prices have led to greater economic, and therefore social, power for these farmers. So many are now diversifying their diets to include more vegetables and meat, and an exit from extreme poverty means an ability to protest for economic and environmental rights. Going back to "staying in your lane" and feeling sorry for rural South Americans could send them back into poverty and powerlessness. And chances are, the growing popularity of teff will have the same benefits as that of quinoa.

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