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Meet teff, yet another ancient grain that could become a new ‘superfood’

The edible seeds from Africa are becoming popular around the world as a source of vegan protein. In India, one company is betting big on it

Teff grows mainly in the Horn of Africa but is currently being cultivated in North Karnataka (Photo: iStock)
Teff grows mainly in the Horn of Africa but is currently being cultivated in North Karnataka (Photo: iStock)

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“A lot of ancient grains, including quinoa, millets, and farro, have been in the spotlight recently as terrific sources of plant-based protein, fibre, minerals, and slow-digesting carbs. But it’s one of the tiniest and most unsung of these grains that packs the mightiest nutritional punch: teff,” says Harshavardhan, CEO and co-founder of Lil'Goodness, a Bengaluru-based health food and nutrition startup focused mainly on products for children. Lil’Goodness has a range of products, from flours to crackers, cookies and chocolate bars, that incorporate the grain.

But what is teff? Eragrostis tef, also known as teff, Williams lovegrass or annual bunch grass, is an annual grass species native to the Horn of Africa, mainly grown in countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea today. The edible seeds of the grass are known as teff, and form the bulk of the Ethiopean diet, providing up to two-thirds of the daily protein intake. Teff’s nutritional profile is excellent—a 100-gram serving of cooked teff provides 101 kilocalories of food energy, and it is a rich source of protein, dietary fiber, and manganese, and contains moderate amounts of thiamin, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and zinc. It is also gluten-free, and was recently shown to be a significant source of bioactive compounds including polyphenols, especially very rich in flavonoid derivatives which are rare in the other common grains.

The Indian diet is 60% grain or cereal-based, which is a major reason for India being protein and B12 deficient. Teff rightly fits into solving this problem, says Lil'Goodness. It is also a good option for diabetics, as it helps regulate blood sugar levels because of its relatively low glycaemic index and high fibre content.

Packaged teff grain
Packaged teff grain

While most of the teff used around the world is imported from Ethiopia, Lil’Goodness is sourcing the grain from farmland in north Karnataka, a dry and arid region which is also one of the leading cultivators of millets in India. Teff is being grown for the first time in the country from seeds that were brought from Ethiopia. “The versatile nature of teff grain, with its tiny size and crunchiness, provides wonderful opportunities for minimally processed products that can be a source of balanced nutrition while being grown sustainably in dry lands,” says Harshavardhan. As awareness about the ancient grain grows, other companies in India may also start using teff in their nutritional products.

What makes teff a “superfood”? Well, the label is used increasingly commonly but teff does have claims that cannot be ignored: besides being high in protein (cooked teff is 4% protein, rare for plant-based products), iron (teff contains 7.6 mg of iron per 100 mg), calcium (180 mg calcium per 100g, significantly higher than many other grains like quinoa, ragi etc), and micronutrients like vitamin C (again, rare for grains), B vitamins, copper, selenium, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese, teff is good for gut health — studies show an association of teff seed extracts and teff consumption with positive effects on the intestinal microbiome composition and function, potentially explaining why the prevalence of dietary iron and zinc deficiencies in Ethiopia are lower in comparison to other neighbouring African nations.

The sweet-tasting grain is quite versatile and can be used in a variety of recipes. While teff flour can be used to make breads and rotis, the processed grain can be used to make porridge (both sweet and savoury) and as a substitute for wheat in cakes and tarts. Injera, an Ethiopean flatbread made of teff, is pretty easy to make and goes well with dals and curries.

(This story was updated to reflect a change in the name of the company spokesperson).

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