We live in a time of food obsession: alternative flours and sugars, miracle grains and seeds, powders that promise protein and regulated gut flora and deeper sleep. Some are far-reaching in terms of how regularly they end up on our plates, like quinoa, while other stay more reserved, like teff. Teff is an edible seed like quinoa, and therefore naturally gluten-free and high in protein. While teff has long been used in Ethiopia to make dietary staples like injera, a spongy flatbread, teff’s presence in the American diet is much more recent.
Teff is a tiny seed produced from a species of lovegrass. It has a mild, slightly nutty flavor, and has an appealing nutritional profile: a ¼ cup serving boasts 5 grams of protein, 5 grams of dietary fiber, and provides 15 percent daily value of iron. Teff seeds can be boiled like pasta and served a porridge or side dish, or ground into a flour and used in baked goods to create a flavor profile comparable to pumpernickel.
Publications like the New York Times and BBC News have run stories hailing teff as a potential new super grain. “The growing interest in teff is part of an increasing consumer desire for so-called ancient grains like farro, quinoa, spelt, amaranth and millet,” the Times reported. Indeed, there is a market in the US and Europe for wheat substitutes, in terms of added nutritional properties as well as alternative flavors. Teff is well known in the gluten free and higher-end food communities, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a salad topped with sprouted teff or a brownie made with teff flour at your local fast-casual restaurant franchise.
There are likely a few reasons for teff’s not-quite mainstream popularity in the past. For one, exporting teff was banned in Ethiopia until from 2006 until 2015. As the price of seed climbed, the Ethiopian government began to worry about a food crisis, and ended the export of raw teff in 2006. Ethiopian companies were allowed to export cooked forms of teff in injera and other baked goods, but could not sell the seeds alone. However, as farming techniques in Ethiopia became increasingly mechanized, crop yields increased, and the ban was lifted.
“[Rising yields] have given the government confidence that systematic exports of Teff can gain smallholder farmers in Ethiopia... increased income, without harming the domestic consumers.” Khalid Bomba, the CEO of the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency, told CNN in 2015.
Although foreign exports of teff are no longer considered a threat in terms of supply by the Ethiopian government, and the risk is still heavily policed, the potential of the seed becoming too expensive for Ethiopians due to North American and European demand should always be considered. While quinoa exports may be hurting South America, Bomba, who is also quoted in the Times, is positive that won’t happen in Ethiopia: “We want to create jobs here rather than export raw teff and have Europeans and Americans process it into flour and create a higher value market,” he said. “We’d rather do as much of that as possible here in Ethiopia.”
The Guardian reported in 2016 that export licences were given to 48 commercial farmers in Ethiopia who had not previously been growing teff, so there was no risk of cutting into domestic crops. If anything, it may actually be a good idea to give quinoa a break and balance out your wheat-alternatives consumption: try a bowl of teff porridge tomorrow, and then another ancient grain the following day.