Is This Gluten-Free Import From Ethiopia the Next ‘It’ Grain?

The nutrient-packed Ethiopian staple may be set for a moment in the West.

Ethiopian Injera made from American-grown teff. (Photo: Marvin Joseph/'The Washington Post'/Getty Images)

Dec 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

First there was quinoa. Then there were amaranth, millet, farro, einkorn, freekeh—the list goes on. Is it now teff’s turn in the grain-of-the-moment spotlight?

For millennia, teff has been on Ethiopian plates three times a day—often as a main ingredient in injera, the sourdough-risen flatbread. Today it accounts for 15 percent of all calories consumed in Ethiopia. And it may now be experiencing its “coming out” to the rest of the world.

As with most things, teff’s expansion is all about timing: As a naturally gluten-free crop, teff seems poised to break into the rapidly expanding market catering to the 18 million Americans with gluten sensitivities. The tiniest grain in the world, teff is a nutritional superfood, packed with more protein, fiber, and calcium than most other grains.

The timing of teff’s rise may also be good for Ethiopia’s farmers. Teff is grown by approximately 6.3 million farmers in the poor but economically improving East African nation. It covers 20 percent of all land under cultivation. National leaders have set a goal of doubling teff production by 2015, but they have been looking for international markets into which the crop can be introduced.

Enter Aleem Ahmed, a Harvard- and MIT-trained former management consultant who worked for a time with the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency to expand the reach of the “superfood.” Ahmed has since returned to the United States to cofound Love Grain, which plans to make a series of products centered around Ethiopian teff, beginning with a breakfast mix for making waffles or pancakes.

Although injera has been available at Ethiopian restaurants for decades, and certain health-food stores have stocked the grain too, it’s products like this that could help teff become more commonplace. “There is a market for teff products to expand in North America. In large part it is a matter of familiarity,” says Tricia Thompson, a registered dietitian and gluten-free nutrition consultant. “Many consumers have never heard of teff, but this will obviously change as the grain is used in more products and included in more recipes.”

“Lightbulbs went off in my head,” Ahmed says about when he saw how the gluten-free phenomenon had taken off during the three years he spent overseas. “There are customers here in the U.S. that are looking for these types of foods, and farmers in Ethiopia are ready to export it. It’s a natural opportunity for social enterprise to emerge.” Furthermore, he’d personally worked on the team trying to expand teff production and distribution throughout the world—this was familiar territory.

But quinoa may be a cautionary tale for Ethiopia’s farmers and socially conscious consumers here in the United States. Quinoa’s popularity has opened the door to big food manufacturers and pesticide companies from the West looking to capitalize on the crop while simultaneously driving prices so high that some locals can no longer afford to eat their staple food. In Peru, another ancient, cancer-fighting super-vegetable, maca, has found its way to the shelves at Whole Foods Markets, sparking larceny of the crop and talk that the country has already lost control of the native species.

Ahmed doesn’t see the international clamoring for teff as being anything but beneficial to Ethiopia, however. He says Ethiopian farmers—from whom Ahmed hopes to one day purchase teff directly—already have a surplus of the crop and are eager to sell outside the country. They tend to keep half their crop and sell the other half, he says, so an inability to afford the staple seems unlikely. Finally, he says research shows getting farmers better prices for their grain reduces a country’s poverty rate.

Despite Love Grains’ altruistic mission to help farmers in Ethiopia, the company’s main competition may be stateside. The Teff Company is growing and selling teff as a consumer crop in Idaho’s Snake River Valley. And some farmers and researchers are even experimenting with using teff as a supplementary animal feed, cutting down on livestock water usage.

To date, Love Grain is the only company marketing teff in ready-to-eat forms. Its next product might be its most American one yet. In January, Ahmed is heading to Ethiopia to work with food processors there on developing a teff-made food near and dear to many of us: a delicious puffed-grain snack. Teff cheese puffs, perhaps? Stay tuned.