Much Potential, but Supply Situation Tough for Teff

11 Nov 2014

Teff is an eager contender in the line-up of “heritage” supergrains, and it has much to offer. Replete with nutrients, the right kind of starch and devoid of gluten, it keys into several prominent dietary trends at once. But why is it still not widely available? The problem is at the production end. Cultivation remains […]

Much Potential, but Supply Situation Tough for Teff

Teff is an eager contender in the line-up of “heritage” supergrains, and it has much to offer. Replete with nutrients, the right kind of starch and devoid of gluten, it keys into several prominent dietary trends at once. But why is it still not widely available? The problem is at the production end. Cultivation remains limited to its native East Africa, where demand already outstrips supply. Teff’s global future depends not only on widening its geographic spread, but also on creating better quality seeds.
A nutritional powerhouse

Teff (eragrostis tef) is a grain native to the Horn of Africa. According to the FAO, Ethiopia and Eritrea are currently the only two noteworthy producers of teff, and it remains a key staple food in these countries. Teff is most commonly eaten as a spongy, pancake-like bread called injera, which serves as a wrap for dishes like lamb and lentil stews.

Teff grains are much smaller than wheat. Being about the size of a poppy seed, it takes three thousand grains to make up one gram of teff. Its small size makes conventional cereal milling impossible, and so teff flour is always made from the whole grain, rendering it highly nutritious.

The grain is particularly rich in calcium, iron and fibre. Around a third of its carbohydrate content is accounted for by resistant starches, which are very beneficial for blood sugar control – a key aspect of both diabetes and weight management. Teff is also sometimes promoted as “high protein”. However, it’s worth mentioning that wheat flour contains a comparable amount.
A step towards more wholesome gluten-free products

Up until recently, teff was largely unknown outside of its two domestic markets, although the Ethiopian diaspora has led to small quantities of teff being exported (often in visitors’ suitcases) to other continents, and due to this, many Europeans, Americans and Australasians living in the larger cities will have consumed teff (in the form of injera) in Ethiopian restaurants.

The primary reason, however, why teff has come to attention in recent years is the global gluten-free boom, which saw worldwide value sales of gluten-free packaged food almost double. Glowing endorsements, by the likes of celebrity health enthusiasts Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham, have also played their part in pushing teff into the limelight.

When it comes to gluten-free bakery items and pasta, teff has a unique contribution to make. Traditionally, gluten-free products were made from highly refined flours, and, unlike as is the case for refined wheat and maize flours in many countries, no mandatory fortification with vitamins and minerals is required for gluten-free flours. This has given standard gluten-free products the lamentable reputation of consisting of little more than “empty starch”. Teff flour, made from the entire, nutrient-packed seed and not refined in any way, adds some wholesome goodness to the end product – a characteristic highly welcomed by today’s nutrition-savvy health and wellness consumers.

Although 100% teff flour is available through health food shops and online sellers, products that are exclusively made from teff are virtually impossible to find, mainly because of price. Most offerings consist of teff mixed with other kinds of flour, such as millet, rice and tapioca. Examples are La Tortilla Factory Smart & Delicious Wraps by California-based La Tortilla Factory and German specialist bakery products brand 3 Pauly, owned by Haus Rabenhorst O. Lauffs KG, which carries gluten-free versions of “traditional” German sliced breads, including Bauernbrot (“farmer’s bread”), Winzerbrot (“winegrower’s bread”) and Schwarzbrot (“black bread”). The company also offers other types of grain-based products incorporating teff, such as Teff Spiralen (pasta spirals).
Teff beneficial for controlling weight and diabetes

The potential of teff-based products goes far beyond the realm of gluten-free. The gluten-free boom may well have reached its zenith by now, and the practice of cutting gluten from one’s diet – in the belief that this brings a wide range of health benefits to people who do not actually suffer from coeliac disease (a serious medical condition caused by a verifiable allergy to gluten) – is regarded by many health professionals as a “diet fad”.

Diabetes and weight management, however, are serious health objectives, and their importance is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future. Teff, with its naturally high content of resistant starch, has obvious applications in these areas, and the long-term rise in demand for the grain will be fuelled by this fact.


Supply chain troubles

Like other “heritage” grains such as amaranth and quinoa, where production and consumption was, until recently, highly localised in their native South America, teff suffers from supply chain bottlenecks, which seriously impede its proliferation in other markets.

According to the FAO, 6.2 million small-scale farmers are currently engaged in growing teff in its indigenous region, and they largely lack mechanised means of carrying out the many labour-intensive steps required for the grain’s cultivation and harvesting. In fact, Ethiopian and Eritrean farmers are a long way off meeting domestic demand, which means that lower income consumers are not able to afford the grain which forms the bedrock of their countries’ culinary identity. In the name of food security, which is notoriously precarious in the region, the Ethiopian Government periodically imposes teff export bans.

Unlike other key food grains, like wheat, rice or maize, teff remains very under-researched. One consequence of this is that, at around 1.3 tonnes per hectare, teff has the lowest yield of any major cereal crop. Investment in research to build agricultural expertise is sorely needed in order to obtain better quality seeds and boost yields.

On the positive side, teff is hardy, and can withstand waterlogged conditions as well as drought – a highly valuable characteristic, considering the ever more volatile regional weather patterns that seem to be part of global climate change.  Also, teff is highly resistant to insect pests (including during storage) and other biological stresses.

Small quantities of teff are currently being grown in India, Australia and the US (Kansas), but nowhere near in sufficient enough quantities to satisfy pent-up demand and, above all, to help bring prices down to more reasonable levels. For food industry players interested in exploiting the formidable properties of this ancient grain, sourcing problems remain the number one stumbling block, and the only way to resolve this is to focus on the geographic expansion of teff cultivation.

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