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TEFF, an old new ingredient?

Apr 9, 2005

By Arnold Dijkstra 

The ancient Teff (also known as lovegrass or bay grass) originates from Ethiopia where it is traditionally grown as a cereal crop. Teff flour is mainly used for making a sourdough type flat bread called Enjera. It is also used for porridge or brewing alcohlic beverages called tela and katikala. Teff straw is used as fodder for cattle and horses and as a component in adobe construction in Ethiopia. Teff is marked by a number of health benefits, causing growing interest from food and feed industries world-wide. Characteristics and possible application in petfood are discussed.


What is Teff ?

Teff (Eragrostis tef ) originates from Ethiopia and belongs to the smallest grains of the world: it takes about 150 Teff kernels to weigh as much as one wheat kernel. The word Teff is thought to have been derived from the Amharic word teffa which means "lost " because if dropped on the ground, it's too small to recover. The origin of Teff goes far back in history. Traces of the crop were found in the pyramid of Dashur dating as far back as the year 3359 BC. In contrast to amaranth (another type of grain), which was utilized by early civilizations throughout the world, Teff grain still provides over two-thirds of the human nutrition in Ethiopia, it is relatively unknown as a food crop elsewhere. Outside Ethiopia there is however a growing interest in using Teff. Fof example, small scale commercial production of Teff has been introduced to South Africa where it is cultivated as a forage crop.

In its region of origin Teff is cultivated under a wide range of environmental conditions such as on marginal soils, under water logged and under drought conditions. The colour of the grain varies, depending on variety, from ivory white to dark red brown. Accounts on Teff in the late 1800s report that the upper class consumed the white grain, the dark grain was the food of soldiers and servants, while hay made from Teff  was consumed by bullocks.


Teff and health

Because the grains of Teff are so small, a considerable part lf the flour consists of the bran and germ. As a consequence, Teff is a very nutritional crop.

Teff flour is very well digested, it contains a great deal of proteins with amino acids that are essential to humans and it contains little fat. It has a high energy grade of 353 Kcal per 100 grams. Furthermore Teff is rich in minerals like iron and calcium,  which are of important nutritional value .

These nutritional characteristics are not only interesting ones. Teff contains no gluten which is the cause of celiac disease, a chronic digestive disorder found in individuals who experience a toxic immune response when they ingest gluten. Unfortunately the only known treatment is lifelong adherence to a gluten ¨Cfree diet. Teff shows therefore to be very promising as a source of a wide range of gluten ¨Cfree foods, feed and pertood.

Due to the high iron content of Teff the haemoglobin-content is significantly higher amongst Ethiopians that consume Teff compared to non ¨CTeff-consumers. This may explain the low incidence of anaemia among Teff consumers. Malaria appears to show more often with people with a low haemoglobin-content.

A third possible health aspect is the high fibre content resulting in a low glycemic index of Teff. This may contribute to reduce the risk to develop obesity, type II diabetes, heart diseases and some types of cancer. The glycemic index (GI) is a numeriacl system of measuring how fast a carbohydrate triggers a rise in circulating blood sugar. Eating processed, high-glycemic index foods results in higher and more rapid increases in blood glucose levels than when we eat low-glycemic index foods.

Rapid increases in blood glucose causes the beta cells of the pancreas to increase insulin secretion. Over the 2-3 hours, this may cause hypoglycemia. By comparison, the consumption of low-glycemic index foods results in lower but more sustained increases in blood glucose and lower insulin secretions by the pancreas. A study in Israel compared the prevalence rates of diabetes in newly arrived immigrants and in immigrants who had been residing in lsrael for 2.5-4 years. The study showed that new immigrants form Ethiopia had diabetes prevalence rates nearby 0%, while the rate was found to be 8.9% among Ethiopians who had been residing in Israel for 2.5-4 years and had adapted to the western diet!

Finally scientist think there may be a correlation between the durable consumption of Teff and sport. It is not a coincidence that some of the best runners in the world often come from Ethiopia, the land where Teff is a significant portion of the baily diet. Ongoing research will provide more information to support this fascinating characteristic of Teff.


TEFF food and feed

As stated before, Teff is mainly used in Ethiopia for cooking Enjera, a flat, spongy,  and slightly sour bread that looks like a giant bubbly pancake the size of a serving tray. People tear off pieces and use them to scoop up spicy stews that constitute the main meals.

However an increasing amount of recipes for a broad range of other products are available (for example pancakes, bread, cakes, cookies, beer, pasta). Despite the beneficial health effects, availability of Teff grain is still limited and mainly focussed on human (dietary) food.

Due to the relative high costs, applications of Teff grains and flour in feed and petfood are still scarce.

Teff straw is a high protein, sweet smelling valuable animal feed that is highly preferred by animals.

Teff hay is primarily a horse feed, but is used more and more for dairy cattle and wild animals due to its high palatability and digestibility. All wild game that the Natal Parks Board captures for relocation or sale are fed Teff hay while held in captivity. Over the past decade, great success has been achieved in feeding captive elephants a 30% lucern/70% Teff hay mixture. Outside Africa, interestingly the hay is mostly fed to racehorses and seeds are possibly also used at pigeon sport!



Teff appears to be healthy ingredient for both humans and animals and fits humanisation trends in pets. Teff lacks gluten making it very suitable in case of gluten intolerance. Pets with sensitive stomachs or other stomach problems may experience benefits from Teff. Teff may also help to reduce obesity and what about very active pets, like racing, hunting tracking, working and show dog, or dogs that are pregnant and lactating. Would they experience the seem effects which athletes thought to experience? Further research is on going, but based on thousand years of practical use, future prospects seem to be very promising. A challenge for the petfood industry!


If you want more information on Teff and its applications, please contact the author at 


PETS International Magazine ISSUE 5,2004.


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