Word Smith: Teff

Teff, or tef, is a plentifully cultivated old world grain that has found new meaning in the world of natural, gluten-free staples. Our family first came across this crop, when we were shopping for a wheat substitute for one of our daughters. A nutritionist had been recommended she consider a gluten-free diet for a few months. The diet was part of the regime to help calm her inflamed GI tract. We were in search of quinoa, amaranth, teff, buckwheat, taro, tapioca, millet and other relatively obscure gluten-free whole grains.

gluten-free-grains-starchesGluten-Free Whole Grains, Flours & Starches

What is Teff? And where does it come from?

Not to be confused with a special variant of marijuana that may have been cultivated in the 1960’s, teff is a species of lovegrass. It is an annual grass native to the highlands of Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Horn of Africa. The grass is also called Williams lovegrass, xaafii, bunch grass, taf, or by its scientific name, Eragrostis tef.  The word “tef” is connected by folk etymology to the Etho-Semitic vowel-free root word “tff” which means “lost.”  Apparently the size of the individual grains of lovegrass are so small, they are said to be lost.[1]

how-small-is-small-1Teff: small but mighty

We were immediately attracted to teff because it was reported to be high in dietary fiber, iron, protein, and calcium, all of which a young woman needs in her meal plan. With the idea that our daughter might also select a vegan diet, we wanted to make sure that she had the natural elements, particularly iron and protein, so necessary to proper nutrition. Walking through the “bulk foods” section at Whole Foods can be intimidating enough, but finding that I needed my trifocals to even see the grain in my hand was a bit disconcerting. On the flip side, Teff seeds are so small they cook in half the time of other grain staples.

Lost in the food aisle, but big in your belly

Along the same line as my needing glasses to see the teff grains, the native Ethiopians love teff because it takes so much less fuel to cook, compared with other grains. Teff can be easily ground into flour and it is used to make a Horn of Africa dietary staple called injera or tayta.

teff (1)

In addition to containing fiber, iron and calcium, as a bonus teff contains significant levels of several key minerals: phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum, copper, zinc, boron, thiamin and barium.[2] It grows in a wide swath of Mother Earth, thriving best where there is a minimum of 12 hours of sun per day. It has been grown in different altitudes (1,800 to 2,100 meters), with rainfall variations (450 – 550 mm), and with wide temperature shifts (10 – 27 degrees C). It seems to have adapted well to both drought stress and waterlogged soil conditions, which point to its versatility as a sustainable crop. Teff accounts for over 25% of the cereal production in countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea. [3]

It turns out the tiny seed (less than 1 mm diameter across) has other advantages: a handful of seeds is enough to sow a large field, making the propagation easier on your wallet than corn, wheat, and other cash crops. The US National Research Council has characterized teff as having “the potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable land care,” all of which are goals we share to help feed the world into the future.[4] One researcher, James Jeffrey, has dubbed teff the “next Super Grain,” because of its positive dietary attributes and robust cultivation qualities.[5]


And with one final note on teff — adult beverage imbibers will cheer that teff is proving to be a great grain in gluten-free beer. Let’s toast to the success of teff with your favorite brewmeister!

Post Script

On a positive note our daughter feels much better eating less meat and having little to no wheat in her meals, if she can help it. Teff and amaranth have come to the rescue.



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eragrostis_tef

[2] Gabre-Madhin, Eleni ZaudeMarket Institutions, Transaction Costs, and Social Capital in the Ethiopian Grain Market. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eragrostis_tef

[4] National Research Council (1996-02-14). “Tef”Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I: Grains. Lost Crops of Africa 1. National Academies Press. p. 222.ISBN 978-0-309-04990-0. Retrieved 2008-07-18.

[5] Jeffrey, James (2 April 2015). “Will Ethiopia’s teff be the next ‘super grain’?”.BBC. Retrieved 6 April 2015.

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