Teff, the African superfood

Teff, the African superfood

Ancient grains hit the headlines, gluten-free up and coming, superfood top of the list of European consumption. Bingo for teff, a cereal to be discovered.

Teff, a cereal from Africa

Teff (Eragrostis tef) is a cereal belonging to the grass species family, originating with the ancient Abyssinian (Ethiopia) civilization where it’s been cultivated starting 4.000 B.C. It is also very popular in Eritrea and in India, besides Spain. It’s also starting to surface in food production in the USA and Australia. 

The word teff – from the ethio-semite “tff” root that means “lost” – derives from the strong tendency of the microscopic seeds of this cereal to disperse. The teff seed is actually one of the smallest known, with a diameter of just 0.8 mm. Just about the size of a poppy seed. This feature makes sowing easier for the poorest populations, since a bunch of handfuls of seeds are enough for a whole field. (1)

In nature we find three varieties of teff, based on the coloring of the seeds. White, red and brown. The fairest colored variety is the most appreciated and it’s characterized by its delicate flavor. The brown and red varieties are instead characterized by a more intense flavor with vaguely nutty hint.

Teff, Vegan superfood 

Proteins and dietary fibers. The separation of the germ from the bran is impossible due to the small size of this African cereal.) Teff flour is therefore always whole, with a high fiber content and also a good amount of proteins which include 8 essential amino-acids. All this makes it an ideal food for vegan nutrition.  

Micronutrients. This tiny seed is a chest full of micronutrients such as calcium and iron, (2) manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, zinc. In addition to a number of vitamins of the B group (B1,B2, B3, B9).

 teff mineral content

Fonte: Baye, Kaleab. Center for Food Science and Nutrition, College of Natural Science, Addis Abeba University (2014). ‘Teff: Nutrient Composition and Health Benefits’

Teff, use as food and more

 Ethiopian and Eritrean population get their two thirds of their protein from teff (FAO data). Its fermented flour is used to prepare enjera, a spongy pancake traditionally served with lentils, vegetables and other foods. It’s also used in porridge, a breakfast soup that is cooked with oat in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Also a local beer is produced with it, it’s called tella o fersso.  

Since the very tiny seeds are the only portion that is used as human food, the remaining parts of the vegetable are used as animal feed. And for the same purpose teff is cultivated in South Africa and Kenya. Stems are used in bio-architecture – making a virtue of necessity – in order to strengthen the rural huts made out of mud.

The quality center of CREA (Council for Agricultural Research and Analysis of Agricultural Economics) has experimented white and red teff cultivation in Italy. The production was successful – with a three month long productive cycle – but the harvesting was more difficult, due to major loss in the phase of threshing. Meantime some Italian food industries have started experimenting Teff flour on baked products, cereals and bars.

Teff is expected to have a high potential of growth in food production, bakery sector in particular. (3) This is also thanks to the fact that it is naturally free of gluten and to the quality of its starch (starch resistant), which leads to conclude that it would hold a lower Glycemic Index (GI) compared to other gluten-free cereals such as corn and rice. 

Laura Pontassuglia e Dario Dongo


(1) Nevertheless – according to what Dr. Zerihun Tadele, project leader at the Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern, referred on BBC in 2015 – yield by hectare in Ethiopia is still low (1,4 tons) in relation with the global average of modern varieties of wheat (3,2 tons). The African cereal, after all, has so far been scarcely considered by agronomic research

 (2) Levels of iron assumption acquired through teff based foods (bread) have been favorably evaluated in a couple of studies:
– Alaunyte, I., Stojceska, V., Derbyshire, E., Plunkett, A., & Ainsworth, P. (2010). ‘Iron-rich Teff-grain bread: An opportunity to improve individual’s iron status’. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 69(OCE1), E105. doi:10.1017/S002966510999293X

– Bokhari, F & Derbyshire, Emma & Li, Weili & Brennan, Charles & Stojceska, V. (2011). ‘A study to establish whether food-based approaches can improve serum iron levels in child-bearing aged women’. Journal of human nutrition and dietetics: the official journal of the British Dietetic Association. 25. 95-100. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-277X.2011.01185.x. 

(2) See M.J. Callejo e M. Rodrìguez Quijano (2015). ‘Influence of teff variety and wheat flour strength on breadmaking properties of healthier teff-based breads’. Journal of Cereal Science, 68. doi: 10.1016/j.jcs.2015.11.005