The gluten-free superfood that’s quickly becoming the new “it” grain.
These days everybody knows quinoa. The once obscure Andean grain started gaining traction in Western kitchens in the 1980s, exploding into ubiquity in the mid-2000s as a gluten-free superfood. In recognition of its health benefits—especially compared to other grains like wheat—and the boon that global demand has created for Bolivian and Peruvian farmers, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization declared 2013 “The International Year of the Quinoa.” But just a year after this crowning glory, quinoa may already have to step down as the world’s favorite cereal. There’s a new superfood grain gaining traction in kitchens worldwide that is in many respects healthier and more ethical than quinoa. It’s called teff.
Cultivated in Ethiopia and Eritrea for anywhere between three and six thousand years, teff is best known as the main ingredient in the Horn of Africa’s spongy, sour injera flatbread. But fermentation actually gives injera its signature flavor and texture, not teff itself, which on its own has a mild and nutty flavor. The poppy seed-sized grain, the world’s smallest, punches far above its weight nutritionally, providing up to two-thirds the protein and nutrients in a daily Ethiopian diet. It’s no wonder why they call teff Ethiopia’s second gift to the world (the first being coffee). As the teff harvest season approaches for 6.3 million Ethiopian farmers, it’s not hard to imagine that the grain will finally become a household name in 2014. Here are just 10 reasons why teff could overtake quinoa as the new “it” grain.
2. Since teff’s rise around 2006, the Ethiopian government has prudently restricted exports to maintain food security. This means that, as with quinoa, consumers can be sure that their purchase benefits small farmers in the developing world.
3. Of all the gluten-free grains, though, teff is one of the most nutritionally impressive. Teff leads all grains in calcium content and contains all eight vital amino acids. It’s high in iron and protein. It’s low in sodium, bad fat, and cholesterol. Although quinoa has more magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, phosphorous, and potassium (and contains less carbs or sugar than teff), the Ethiopian grain dwarfs its Andean counterpart in calcium, copper, dietary fiber, iron, manganese, thiamin, vitamin K, and zinc. Quinoa’s oxalates and phytic acid—which bind minerals, limiting their absorption by our bodies—offsets its advantages.
4. The higher carbohydrate content in teff is also mainly resistant starch, a newly discovered dietary fiber that’s good for blood sugar management, weight control, and colon health. Quinoa’s carbs are mainly starch and insoluble fiber.
5. Although both grains are equally high in protein, teff contains albumins—the primary protein in blood plasma—making it a good alternative to eggs for vegetarians and vegans.
6. As demand expands, though, other nations will also be able to produce teff. Successful fields have sprung up in Australia, the Netherlands, India and in the United States—specifically, Kansas and Idaho (although they’re still working on lowering prices for domestic teff). As early as 1996, the U.S. National Research Council had flagged teff as a good grain for sustainable rural development at home and abroad. Yet despite three decades of export and experimentation, 92 percent of quinoa is still grown in Bolivia and Peru because it’s been difficult to cultivate in other countries.
8. Both teff and quinoa can survive from sea level to extreme altitudes, in brackish and waterlogged soil and in droughts. But teff is a particularly efficient crop—just one pound of teff can sow an entire acre, sprouting in just 36 hours (the shortest timespan of any grain) and yielding up to a ton of grain in as little as 12 weeks.
9. Whereas overplanting of the newly minted quinoa cash crop in Bolivia and Peru is putting a strain on land and degrading agricultural resources, new planting methods in Ethiopia are likely to precipitate a doubling in teff production between 2013 and 2015, allowing Western consumers to get out in front of a sustainable grain glut.
10. Teff works well as a high-yield rotation crop with legumes and even produces a type of straw byproduct that could be used as a construction material.