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What Is Teff? | Teff Recipes

For generations, teff – one of the oldest and smallest grains in the world – has been a staple ingredient that Ethiopians have used in their meals. It was first domesticated for food production more than 3,000 years ago and is still the most widely grown plant in Ethiopia (although some of the teff on the market is also grown on American soil).

Fast forward to today, and the growing interest in teff beyond the borders of the East African nation is part of an increasing consumer desire for so-called “old grains” such as farro, quinoa, spelled and amaranth. People became attracted to these grains because they are nutrient-dense and not genetically modified.

The earthy, poppy-seed-sized grain could be the secret sauce that helps Ethiopia regularly put on some of the best runners, including Haile Gebrselassie, two-time Olympic and four-time world champion in the 10,000 meters and winner of numerous marathons and half marathons, as well as Ryan and Sara Hall, who just finished a solo half marathon PR in August.

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So should this grain become a must for every other runner with PR ambitions? Read on to learn why it’s time to add a little teff love to your diet.

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What are the nutritional benefits of teff?

All whole grains – including quinoa, rye, and oats – are nutritious additions to an athlete’s diet. But it’s tiny teff that turns out to be a food giant.

One 1/4 cup serving of teff contains the following:

  • 91 calories
  • 6.5 g protein
  • 35 g of carbohydrates
  • 4 g of fiber
  • 89 mg magnesium
  • 3.6 mg iron
  • 87 mg calcium
  • 0.2 mg of vitamin B6
  • 1.75 mg zinc

    While red meat is the best dietary source of iron, it is not the only source. Endurance athletes have become aware of teff because, unlike most grains, it is naturally rich in iron – 1/4 cup dry teff provides about 20 percent of your daily requirement of this mineral, while the same amount of quinoa and oats only 11 percent or 5 percent.

    This is an important nutritional benefit when you consider that highly trained endurance athletes, and especially runners, are prone to iron deficiency. The reasons range from inadequate food intake to exercise-induced inflammation, which leads to impaired iron absorption in the intestine.

    This is worrying, according to Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, because an adequate amount of iron is required for effective and efficient oxygen transport to working muscles, as it is a component of red blood cells.

    “An iron deficiency can make you feel tired, exhausted, weak, and short of breath,” she says. Also, even a mild case of iron deficiency can affect aspects of brain function, including alertness.

    A study conducted by scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in England found that women runners who normally ingested insufficient amounts of iron and had low iron levels saw a noticeable improvement in these levels after six weeks of daily teff bread consumption. This one food substitution increased the subjects’ average daily iron intake from 10.7 mg per day to 18.5 mg, which is the amount women should aim for each day. Research also shows that increasing iron levels in iron-poor, non-anemic women can improve endurance performance.

    “If someone wants to increase their iron levels through diet and avoid the performance-impairing effects of iron deficiency, including teff in their diet can help,” says Sumbal.

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    The caveat, Sumbal said, is that the form of iron in plant foods like teff (called non-heme iron) is absorbed by the body at a lower rate than the heme iron found in animal foods like beef and poultry . Translation: Plant sources of iron may need to be consumed in larger quantities compared to meat in order to get enough iron on a daily basis.

    Teff is also rich in many other essential micronutrients that can aid bodies in exercise, including 25 percent of your daily recommended magnesium and 10 percent of your daily calcium, vitamin B6, and zinc per serving.

    Plus, a quarter cup of uncooked teff contains just over 6 grams of vegetable protein. An analysis of 2020 data in the BMJ from more than 30 previous research linked a higher total protein intake and vegetable protein in particular to lower the overall mortality risk.

    Like other whole grains, teff is a great source of complex carbohydrates that will replenish your energy stores and help you pick up the pace. In addition, between 20 and 40 percent of the carbohydrates in Teff are in the form of resistant starch.

    “Resistant starch resists digestion and instead ferments in the large intestine, where it acts as a prebiotic and nourishes the good bacteria in the intestine,” says Sumbal. “And because resistant starch isn’t digested in the small intestine, it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, which can help with appetite and blood sugar control.”

    By including teff in your diet, you are pivoting the balance towards consuming more whole grains and less processed grains, which is a recipe for better health as greater food group intake is linked to better blood pressure control and lower risk for type is 2 diabetes. In fact, because of its small size, it is impractical for manufacturers to separate teff into its germ, bran, and endosperm layers to make a refined grain like white flour. And yes, eating whole grains is a dietary gain, but breaking out of your comfort zone for multigrain bread and whole wheat pasta can be a good idea.

    “To optimize your vitamin and mineral intake, it is best to eat a varied whole-food diet that contains items like teff,” says Sumbal.

    In addition, for those who cannot tolerate gluten, teff offers another cereal option that is free of this protein. One study found that people with celiac disease who ate teff regularly reported significant reductions in symptoms.

    How to eat teff

    Unlike rice or quinoa, the starch in teff causes the grains to stick together when cooked, which means it’s not suitable for serving like salads, so it’s not exactly the most versatile grain in the kitchen. Still, you can take advantage of this quality by using it like polenta or as a breakfast porridge with a consistency similar to wheat cream topped with berries and chopped nuts.

    When mixed with cocoa powder, soaked dates, and cinnamon, cooked teff makes a delicious and nutritious dessert pudding. “For a creamy end product, boil 1 cup of teff in 3 cups of water for 20 minutes,” says Sumbal.

    Whole grain teff

    Bob’s red mill

    But if you want a grainier texture – similar to chia seeds – you can “dry” teff by mixing 1 cup of teff in 1 cup of water, boiling for 6 to 7 minutes, then letting it stand for 5 minutes, covered.

    Keep in mind that the gelatinous nature of teff means it is digested slowly, which is generally a good thing for sustained energy levels and blood sugar control, but may not be the best food choice for some people just before a run.

    Aside from the Ethiopian food injera – a spongy, slightly sour flatbread – teff flour can add nutritional value to cookies, pancakes, waffles, and sour crusts. It has chocolaty undertones, so it goes great with brownies. However, when baking with teff flour, keep in mind that it is gluten-free, so you cannot simply substitute wheat flour for it in a recipe, as baked goods will not rise immediately or have the same texture. Bob’s Red Mill is a good source of teff grain and teff flour.

    In the end, teff proves to be a great ingredient to add to your diet for a nutritional boost and introduce nutritional diversity. Give it a try and you may find that you are channeling Gebrselassie yourself.

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