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The Richness of Teff

By Lindsey Getz
This ancient whole grain packs a significant nutritional punch.

Now that quinoa essentially has become a household name, another ancient whole grain is gaining in popularity: teff, a tiny grain native to Ethiopia. Teff is low in saturated fat and rich in vitamins and minerals. Its nutty flavor and crunchy texture add a unique taste to baked goods like pancakes, cookies, and breads. People can enjoy this versatile grain whole, steamed, boiled, or baked. But no matter how it’s incorporated into the diet, it adds significant nutritional value.

Teff provides about 70% of the calories Ethiopians consume. The grain is about the size of a poppy seed and ranges in color from dark reddish brown to yellowish brown to ivory. It’s naturally gluten-free and has become of great interest to those looking for new whole grains to add to their diet.

According to Kelly Toups, MLA, RDN, LDN, program manager for Oldways Whole Grains Council, teff received its name because of its small size. The name teff is thought to come from the Ethiopian Amharic word for “lost” because the seed is so tiny, Toups explains. “Because the teff kernel is too small to mill easily, all varieties of teff are whole grain.”

Despite its size, teff provides more calcium than most other grains, Toups says. A 3/4-cup cooked serving contains about 87 mg of calcium vs 16 mg in 3/4 cup cooked oatmeal. “In fact, a 2013 study in Ethiopian Journal of Health found that the breast milk of women in areas where teff is a staple was much higher in calcium and copper than in areas where other starchy staples prevailed,” Toups says. In addition, 3/4 cup of cooked teff provides 6.5 g protein, 4 g fiber, 13% DV thiamin, 12% DV vitamin B6, 21% DV iron, 22% DV magnesium, 12% DV zinc, and 223% DV manganese. It’s also low in sodium, making it ideal for those eating a heart-healthy diet.

Since teff is naturally gluten-free and packed with nutrients, it’s an excellent choice for clients with celiac disease or nonceliac gluten sensitivity—especially when used as a flour for baking.

“Although many gluten-free products are made with refined starchy flours, like potato and white rice, they aren’t required to be enriched or fortified by the FDA, leaving those on a gluten-free diet susceptible to nutrient deficiencies,” Toups says. “But teff flour is a nutrient-rich alternative to many gluten-free flours on the market today, providing more selenium, calcium, and other nutrients. Seeking out recipes and products that incorporate teff and other gluten-free whole grains is a great way to sneak in valuable vitamins and minerals that gluten-free diets may be lacking.”

However, like other gluten-free flours, teff flour often requires a binder, such as xanthan gum, or it can be combined with wheat flour for those who don’t have to eat a gluten-free diet, Toups says. Cookies, crepes, and other baked goods that don’t require much of a rise are great candidates for the use of teff flour. 

Its mildly nutty flavor also works well with a variety of sweet and savory ingredients. Some people taste undertones of cocoa in darker teff varieties, Toups says. And because of its porridge-like consistency when cooked, teff is best when stirred into stews to add body and texture. It also can be combined with chopped vegetables, herbs, or cheeses as a filling in stuffed peppers; incorporated into pilafs; or used as a main component in grain salads, Toups says.

Toups suggests sweetening teff with dried fruit, nuts, or maple syrup, just as you would oatmeal. “For dinner, [you can] use teff grains to create a creamy, earthy polenta. [And] like polenta, teff sets easily when cooked so that leftovers can be cut into shapes and baked,” she says.

For more information on how to prepare teff as well as recipes ranging from teff waffles to peanut butter chocolate chip teff cookies, visit the Oldways Whole Grains Council website at www.wholegrainscouncil.org.

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.