There’s a good chance you’ve eaten grains at least once today (probably more). The most common types of grains – e.g. barley, wheat, rice, and corn – have long been staples in diets all over the world and are considered to be an important contribution to a healthy diet.
So, what are grains?
Grains are derived from the grass family of plants (poaceae), which includes around 12,000 species. These plants have alternating leaves that sheath a long, hollow stem and are found on every continent, supplying more than 50% of the world’s calories. Also known as cereals, grains are the class of grass that we eat . These grasses produce seeds that contain essential nutrients including carbohydrates, fiber, protein and vitamins.
Grains are harvested, processed, and incorporated into everything from bread to beer. Grains are classified according to how they are processed: Whole grains are the least processed and, by far, the healthiest for you; Refined grains are whole grains that have been milled, which strips them of their germ and bran, leaving only the endosperm; Enriched grains are refined grains that, with the exception of fiber, have had some of the lost nutrients added back. Most refined grains are enriched .
One of the most recent grains to gain attention is the ancient grain, teff. While this grain has been around for millennia, its popularity is skyrocketing due to the general public’s desire for a gluten-free, nutrient dense, and/or non-genetically modified alternative to wheat. Additionally, when compared to other grains, teff’s unique amino acid and essential fatty acid profile, makes the grain a popular choice for those who are health-conscious. In 2014 alone, 58% more teff was sold in the United States than in previous years .
Teff, while being the smallest grain, is the most cultivated crop in Ethiopia, making up 90% of the world’s production. It has the highest calcium content of the grains and is high in a type of fiber called “resistant starch,” which has been shown to be beneficial for managing blood sugar and weight. It’s gluten-free, meaning those with celiac’s disease and gluten sensitivity can eat it, and has a mild flavor, making it versatile in the kitchen . It’s a favorite grain among endurance runners because it’s nutrient-dense and can sustain energy .
Teff was discovered in Africa and domesticated over 6,000 years ago. It is tolerant to drought due to the type of photosynthesis it employs, but has been traditionally labor-intensive to grow, requiring a great deal of soil preparation and cultivating by hand . Still, the tiny powerhouse grain is a staple in Ethiopia, being grown by 6.5 million households and accounting for 15% of the country’s calorie intake .
Considering the fact that the food-insecure country of Ethiopia relies on teff as a diet staple, the country has been hesitant to allow growers to export the grain. Citing Peru and Bolivia’s trouble with the sudden explosion in popularity of quinoa 15 years ago , government officials in Ethiopia fear that allowing free export of teff will cause supplies to dwindle and prices to rise, which would be detrimental for many of the country’s citizens. For this reason, Ethiopia instituted a ban on the export of the raw grain, allowing only certain products made from the grain, like flour and a bread called injera, to be exported in limited amounts, conserving the country’s manufacturing jobs. For this reason, most of the teff purchased in the United States is grown in Idaho, the Netherlands, Australia and India .
Teff isn’t just a dietary staple in Ethiopia. It’s also a part of their culture. Injera, the spongy bread made from the grain, is often eaten with every meal. It is light and flat like a pancake, and has a sour taste that makes it pair well with meat. Injera has also been known to be made by mixing teff with other flours, however according to Ethiopian standards, injera made with other flours is “less tasty” .
To facilitate the growth of teff in countries with less than ideal growing conditions, researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno have embarked on a 4-year research project to increase the drought tolerance and yield stability. Supported by Hatch Act funds, the project aims to “improve the economic viability” of the plant by using a multi-disciplinary scientific approach, including molecular genetics, soil management approaches and plant breeding to minimize lodging, a condition in which the stem breaks, causing the plant to fall over. Lodging accounts for a significant amount of seed loss .
Scientists at the University of Nevada College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources and the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension are also evaluating teff genotypes in an attempt to redouble seeds of the promising ones, exploring weed control in teff crops, and learning more about plant breeding. Combined, these advances in crop science will improve food security in drought prone areas such as Ethiopia, and stave off damage from future climate change, benefiting both farmers and consumers .
Teff is a superfood that can fit into all types of diets – not only the USDA recommended “Myplate Macronutrient Distribution” – but also gluten-free, low-carb, and ketogentic. Choosing carbohydrates from nutrient dense grains like teff helps to regulate blood sugar and digestion, lower blood pressure, and raise blood iron levels .
So, while teff doesn’t come without its share of problems like low supply and higher prices, it is an excellent addition to your diet. Fortunately, the future is looking bright for this superfood due to the scientific advances in growing the crop, and thanks to researchers like the ones at the University of Nevada, Reno, the people who enjoy it will soon be able to overcome the supply and demand hurdles.
- Stallknecht, Gilbert F., Gilbertson, Kenneth M. & Eckhoff, J.L. (1993). Teff: Food crop for humans and animals. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.). New crops. New York: Wiley.