Food series: Story of Tef, A Tiny Ancient Grain with Massive Health Benefits

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The smallest grain ever,- where almost a hundred of its seeds are equal to the size of one wheat kernel – contains such an enormous amount of nutrients that make it qualified to be labeled as “a nutrient-dense superfood”. That grain is none other than the amazing tef, a grain with roots dating back thousands of years ago.

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Williams lovegrass, annual bunch grass, and Abyssinian love grass are some of the different names of the grain Eragrostis abyssinica commonly known as tef or teff. This fine grain which is the size of a poppy seed comes in a variety of colours ranging from white and ivory to red and dark brown. Tef is an ancient grain from Ethiopia and Eritrea that originated in 4000 BC to 1000 BC and has been a staple part of their cuisines for thousands of years. These two countries offer fertile fields and ecologically-sensitive farming methods, along with the region being naturally dry with short rainy seasons, which are perfect conditions for the cultivation of high-quality tef.  Farmers prefer cultivating tef over other cereals because it is resilient to climatic and soil stresses and it makes higher market prices. Along with tef’s countries of origin, it is also cultivated in minorities in other countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, India and the USA.

Now if we take a look over some of the advantages of cultivating tef in particular, we will get a better picture as to why farmers favor that unique grain;

  • It is a main protein-rich constituent in the national diet of Ethiopia & Eritrea.
  • During the dry season and times when there is a shortage of animal feed, the straw of tef becomes a valuable feed and costs higher than other cereals’ straw.
  • It is a low-risk and a reliable crop.
  • It can withstand climate and soil-related stresses.
  • It can be used for both double and relay cropping.
  • Compared to other cereals, it is less susceptible to pest problems and disease.
  • It can be stored under basic storage conditions without being liable to pests.
  • It has a long shelf-life, a little over three years.

tef - story of - pic3One might wonder, why does tef account for almost two-thirds of the Ethiopians daily protein intake? The answer is simple, a cup of tef contains about 8 grams of protein! Tef contains quite a high amount of the different amino acids and it has been found that upon comparing its amino acids’ profile to that of an egg, they turned out to be rather similar. Moreover, with a cup of cooked tef offering 123 mg of calcium (equivalent to the amount of calcium you get from half a cup of cooked spinach), it leads all the other grains by a wide margin regarding calcium content. Tef is also high in resistant starch, a recently-discovered type of dietary fiber that can have a positive effect on blood sugar management, weight control and colon health. It is estimated that about 20-40% of the total carbohydrate content in tef is resistant starch. Moreover, tef is high in iron and magnesium content as well as being filled with B vitamins especially vitamin B6, which makes it highly desirable as a power-packed source of energy. This in turn, makes tef an excellent choice in the diets of athletes such as long-distance runners.

This is also backed up by the 2012 study conducted at the Manchester Metropolitan University by the Centre of Food. The study found that pregnant women who ate tef-based bread managed to maintain their iron stores during the period of their pregnancy. More studies suggested that tef-based bread also improves iron stores in female athletes. This is probably due to the fact that when the flour is fermented, it improves the rate of iron absorption.

Traditionally, the tef grain is mainly used for making “injera”, a pancake-like fermented flatbread that is a staple food in most Ethiopian households. It is estimated that in Europe, there are more than 90 restaurants that provide Ethiopian cuisine which naturally, feature injera bread. Other variations of the injera include, the chechebsa, anebabero and shekeka. It is also often used in making different kinds of porridge.  As for drinks, tef is used in making “arak’e”, a local alcoholic drink and a native bear known as “t’ella”. The straws of tef are mostly used for two purposes, the first is that tef is used as feed for livestock, and the second use in construction in plastering wooden walls of buildings and inner fittings by acting as support for clay.

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Injera pancake-like flat bread

Tef is a protein-rich gluten-free grain with a mild flavor which makes it a healthy and a versatile ingredient for numerous gluten-free products and recipes both sweet and savory. It can be eaten whole in many ways such as; steamed, boiled or baked either as a main course or a side dish, and you can even sprinkle a handful of raw or roasted seeds over a salad to reap its nutritional benefits. It can be added to veggie burgers, stew, made into warm breakfast cereal or polenta (a type of porridge). Furthermore, it can be ground into flour to create a highly nutritious gluten-free flour alternative, which can then be used to make bread, waffles, cookies, crackers and an assortment of other baked goodies. The unique advantage of tef in its flour form is that, the milling process doesn’t remove any of the germ or bran (where the nutrients are concentrated) from the grain due to its small size, and thus, it maintains all of its nutrients, along with possessing a good flour texture that is easy to work with.

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Tef grains (left) and Tef flour (right)
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Tef-based baked goodies

As time goes by, people take agricultural products for granted often forgetting the great impact they have on our lives. You see, if it weren’t for agriculture, we wouldn’t be here today, simple as that. Thousands of years ago, when countries and borders didn’t exist, people were roaming around looking for places to settle. A major factor that contributed to where they chose to settle down was how fertile that land is. That is how populations started before they gradually grew to cover lands and continents. A crop-nurturing environment was the main food supply whereupon, urbanization started and civilizations were established. Among the many civilizations and kingdoms that were developed relying on agriculture are the Midianites of the Bible, the kingdom of Saba, the African kingdoms of Aksum, the kingdom of D’mt, the A-group and Cushitic migrants to the Great Lakes during 1,500BCE to 100 CE.

This is not different from today, where 60% of Africa’s working population is employed in the area of agriculture and about 70% of Africa’s freshwater supply is used in agriculture. Over time, agriculture has become not only the main source of human and animal food, but also the supplier of many gigantic industries such as the garment and the pharmaceutical industries.  Agriculture is simply the root of life.


  • National Research Council (14 February 1996). “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 18 July 2008.
  • Murphy, Denis J. (2007). People, Plants, and Genes: The Story of Crops and Humanity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199207145.
  • Gebremariam, M.M., Zarnkow, M. & Becker, T. (2014). Teff (Eragrostis tef) as a raw material for malting, brewing and manufacturing of gluten-free foods and beverages: a review. J. Food Sci. Technol., 51, 2881–2895.

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Food series: Story of Tef, A Tiny Ancient Grain with Massive Health Benefits

by Editorial Team time to read: 5 min