Turning to teff for the iron
When Laura Ingalls, an avid runner from Boston, found out after a routine blood test that she was iron-deficient, she turned to the kitchen instead of the medicine cabinet: she started eating teff.
A grain from Ethiopia that’s the size of a poppy seed, teff is naturally high in minerals and protein. Ingalls started baking and cooking with it, and now doesn’t run a race without it.
“Teff is like a runner’s superfood,” she said. “It’s great as a prerace meal. It’s high in iron, and it’s a whole grain, so it provides a slow release of energy, which is exactly what I need.”
Some research backs her claims. A study led by scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in England found that female runners with low iron levels who were assigned to consume bread made from teff every day for six weeks improved their iron levels.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Ieva Alaunyte, a registered nutritionist and former competitive runner, said she designed the study because iron deficiencies were especially common among female runners and endurance athletes, and teff seemed like a good dietary solution.
“If someone wants to increase their iron levels through diet, then I would try to incorporate teff,” she said.
The growing interest in teff is part of an increasing consumer desire for so-called ancient grains like farro, quinoa, spelt, amaranth and millet. Teff has been used commercially in foods like pasta, protein bars and pancake mix.
In addition to being high in iron, it’s high in protein, and much of its fiber is a type known as resistant starch, which has been linked in studies to health benefits such as improved blood sugar. It has more calcium and vitamin C than almost any other grain. Endurance athletes like teff because it’s naturally high in minerals.
Dietitians recommend teff as a way for Americans to introduce more whole grains into their diets, and people who can’t tolerate gluten use teff as an alternative to wheat. One study of 1,800 people with celiac disease found that those who regularly ate teff reported a significant reduction in symptoms.
Julie Lanford, a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition classes to cancer survivors in North Carolina, said she often recommended teff because most Americans consumed wheat as their only whole grain. Every plant has a unique assortment of nutrients, and by eating different grains, “you get a variety of different nutrients,” she said.
At home, Lanford substitutes teff when she makes grits and a version of cream of wheat. She also makes teff porridge with dates and honey for breakfast. “My 5-year-old loves it,” she said.
But as teff finds its way into American kitchens, farmers a world away in East Africa are watching with reservations.
Teff, first domesticated in Ethiopia more than 3,000 years ago, is the most widely planted crop in the country. Teff accounts for nearly 15 percent of all calories consumed there, much of it in the form of injera, a tart, spongy flatbread that is served with most meals. More than 90 percent of the world’s teff is grown in Ethiopia.
But most of the teff consumed in North America, Europe and other parts of the world is grown in places like Idaho, the Netherlands, Australia and India. That’s because, in a bid to keep teff affordable at home, the Ethiopian government mostly forbids its farmers from exporting it.
The government imposed the export ban, in part, because of what happened to quinoa, another ancient grain that earned international “superfood” status about 15 years ago.
The grain, quinoa, was a dietary staple in countries like Bolivia and Peru for centuries. But as the international appetite for it grew, there were news reports that it had become too pricey for many South Americans, including those who depended on it as part of their traditional diets.
Khalid Bomba, the chief executive of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, which oversees the country’s teff production, says Ethiopia is trying to protect its domestic supply of teff as international interest in it grows.
“We don’t want to be in a situation similar to Latin America where they started exporting quinoa and then all of a sudden the local population couldn’t afford it,” he said.
About five years ago, the agricultural agency introduced a program to help millions of Ethiopian farmers increase their production of teff, and the government recently started a pilot program that allows a small number of commercial farmers to export teff to the United States and other countries.
But the Ethiopian government is allowing exports only of teff products like flour and injera, not the grain itself, so it can keep manufacturing jobs from leaving 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 Ethiopian government hopes to make teff a protected brand much like another of its prized commodities, coffee, which also originated in Ethiopia. The country grows and exports a variety of trademarked coffee beans, each of which has its own distinct flavor and appearance as does teff, which can be black, brown or ivory, and range in taste from bitter to somewhat sweet.
A small number of food startups, such as Love Grain, a company based in San Francisco, are trying to incorporate teff into everyday American foods, like gluten-free pancake mixes and teff-based tortilla chips.
“There’s a lot of room to be creative with teff because it’s such a versatile grain,” said Aleem Ahmed, the company’s founder.
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