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The Truth Behind Teff, the West's Latest Superfood Crush

The West loves nothing more than a new food craze, especially one that's supposed to be insanely good for us. The newest "superfood" fad? Teff, a grain from Ethiopia that's gluten-free, rich in nutrients, and already endorsed by celebrities.

An injera pancake made from teff flour

The West loves nothing more than a new food craze. While for us this means things like chia seed, goji berries and baobab, in the early days of the European empire it was potatoes, cocoa and sugar. At the time, a fellow guest reported that, at one dinner, the economist Adam Smith didn’t sit down, preferring instead to walk agitatedly round the table until he saw an opportunity to snatch lumps of sugar from the sugar bowl. In an attempt to stop this addict stealing all of her sweet goodness, the elderly woman hosting the dinner removed the bowl from the table and put it on her lap. This made no difference. Smith needed his sugar and so he continued to try to steal it.


Nowadays, we tend to view our attachment to things like sugar as either normal or as addictions. The flipside of this, of course, is the fetishisation of food products that are meant to be insanely good for us. “Superfoods” come in many shapes and sizes. If we eat the right type of yogurt then we can sling as much booze and Domino's down our throats as we like, our stomachs will be healed. If we supplement our yoga routine with a strict regime of berries and quinoa, then we’ll live to 150. Quinoa, like millet, is the sort of foodstuff that is thought of as humble and health-giving to the point where it somehow ends up being an ancient rebuke to the artificiality of modern life, with its Big Macs, smartphones and promiscuity.

Now, though, poor old quinoa faces a challenge. The humble grain of the Andean peasant is being joined on the shelves of Western health food retailers by the simple grain of the African farmer: teff. Farmed in Ethiopia and Eritrea (as well as by diaspora communities in California and Israel), it has been a staple of the diet in that part of the world for centuries. And now here it is in the organic aisles of London, Paris and New York reinvented as some kind of highly marketable (celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham are already all over it, naturally) health product.

Teff, which is the world's smallest food grain, is gluten-free and very rich in nutrients (particularly iron) and, more often than not, fermented to make injera (a risen flatbread). Ermis Gebre from The Queen of Sheba, one of London’s best Ethiopian restaurants, told me that the normal process for turning teff into injera wouldn’t work in the West because we would, despite our penchant for artisan sourdough, find the resulting pancakes too sour.


His restaurant gets teff from a family farmer whose farm is near the Blue Nile, north of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. They mix the teff with barley, rice, and wheat flour, giving their injera ten percent gluten content, which would no doubt be frowned upon by Gwyneth. This way, though, the pancakes are sweeter and non-Ethiopians, with their pathetic taste buds, can enjoy the goodness of teff.

Left: teff grain, right: teff flour

If you're thinking of trying teff yourself, however, shit ain't cheap. These things never are. Outside of London’s Ethiopian restaurants, Tobia Teff flour is available at various health food stores for between $7 (£4.50) and $11.50 (£7) for a kilo and it speaks volumes that none of the Ethiopians I spoke to in Britain bought their teff or their injera here. All of them had family bring it over from Ethiopia or made sure they stocked up on trips home. So if teff does, as reports are suggesting, become the West's next prized superfood, how will it affect the people who farm it? Should we actually start to think about the trajectory of these new products we obsess over before we stuff forkfuls of Pret A Manger's latest superfood pot into our heads?

Teff, it seems, is very sensitive. Its farming requires perfect weather. “To make good teff, you need sun, a little rain and not so much wind,” Ermis Gebre told me. Teff farmers are generally not large-scale operators, either—they’re mostly skinny, grizzled men who’ve been in the game for a while. Their grain, harvested twice a year, is turned into injera pancakes and then exported.


Despite its popularity both outside and inside Ethiopia (the country's 6.5 million teff farmers struggle to meet even local demands), it is illegal to export more than a few kilos of pure teff. As much as the farmers would love to export their crop – the price per quintal, $72 (€52), is too expensive for most Ethiopians who earn less than $2 a day—the Ethiopian government is worried that exporting teff in bulk will lead to it being sold back into the their market at inflated prices. This means that large-scale export has to be of injera, not teff, and that means involving manufacturers and then the government—both of whom are known to take the lion’s share of the money.

Hailu, an Ethiopian teff farmer

Exporting greater quantities of teff to the West could also have an affect on the health of Ethiopians, too. In rural areas, farmers are now selling the bulk of their grain, which the Ethiopian government says has had adverse nutritional consequences for those communities. As an Ethiopian Development Research Institute report detailed, teff consumption is three times as high in urban areas and the quality of teff consumed is also better. Across the country, around 20 percent of children under the age of five are thought to be malnourished, something that increased teff consumption could help alleviate, and something that obviously can't happen if us Westerners want to gobble it all up.


Teff in its natural state

This is one of the driving forces behind Ethiopia’s agricultural juggernaut. The government wants to double teff production by 2015. This is primarily to meet the needs of the domestic market. According to Khalid Bomba, the CEO of the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), agricultural growth in Ethiopia is increasing at an annual rate of over eight percent. The main issue, for Bomba, is getting new technology to the smallholder farmers growing teff. This, he believes, is a combination of an understandable conservatism on the part of the farmers as well as a lack of money. Though some doubt the precise accuracy of the stats, agricultural growth in Ethiopia is genuinely pretty massive. India’s Green Revolution—which saw the introduction of high-yield crop varieties, coupled with the use of modern agricultural techniques, in order to make the country self-sufficient in food grains—is beginning to be matched in Ethiopia.

So often these impressive statistics end up benefiting only a handful of rich people around the world. But, with teff, there’s a chance it could be good in terms of economic spread. Unlike sugar or palm oil, which have to be grown on large plantations that are environmentally destructive, it can be grown by extremely small-scale operators. These operators make up most of Ethiopia's working population, which means that the benefits of a worldwide teff love-in could end up being widely shared.

So, while our interest (invariably piqued by celebrities going nuts over it) in this staple grain could be seen as a bit patronising, we won't necessarily have to feel guilty about loving teff. The demand for gluten-free food is off the scale now (after all, gluten only makes us sad and stupid) and if quinoa has become a $150 million market in five years, what’s to say teff won’t do better? The Ethiopian government, for all its faults, is working effectively on agricultural development and, considering teff is actually more nutritious and resilient than quinoa, there are high hopes.

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.