Step aside quinoa: is teff the new ‘superfood’ grain?

Tiny grains ... Teff.
Tiny grains ... Teff. Photo: Danielle Colley

Chia seeds, quinoa and coconut everything. These products have taken over our shelves in the quest for a healthy diet. Now there's a new contender to add to the gluten-free mix: the Ethiopian grain teff. 

Teff is the smallest known grain in the world, tinier even than a poppy seed. It's used most commonly in the flatbread injera, which is eaten across East Africa. But teff can also be added to cakes and muffins, eaten as porridge or used as a polenta replacement.

Hailed by some as the next big "superfood", just how super is this ancient little seed?

Coconut, banana and cherry muffins with teff (recipe below).
Coconut, banana and cherry muffins with teff (recipe below). Photo: Danielle Colley.

"It definitely ticks a lot of the healthy food boxes; good fat profile, high micronutrient and mineral content and bonus – gluten free," says nutritionist Dr Michelle Crawford.

Teff is high in iron and calcium and packed full of B vitamins, which makes it great for energy plus it has an estimated 20-30 per cent resistant starch, which is a type of fibre that helps blood sugar management, weight control and maintaining gastrointestinal health. 

Available in some health food stores and Coles supermarkets, Teff isn't the first power-packed product to hit the shops in recent years. So you could be forgiven for asking: how does it measure up to current go-to ingredients quinoa and chia seeds? 

"Scientifically it's not really fair to compare cereals and seeds. Each one has their own benefits and downfalls," Crawford says. "Teff is a predominantly carbohydrate-based grain and is similar to quinoa in carbohydrate and protein content. It is probably fairest to compare these two."

Chia and quinoa contain folate whereas teff has none. But teff packs a little something that the others do not.

"Vitamin K is a fat soluble vitamin which is required for blood clotting and also bone health," Crawford says.  

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"Interestingly, teff is the only one of the three 'grains' which contains this. Could teff be the new bone health superfood?" 

In its whole, grain form, teff performs similarly to semolina or polenta, quickly becoming a thick gruel, which is perfect for soaking up sauces or eating as a porridge.

Adding raw or toasted seeds to a salad, or tossing a handful in baking is going to reap nutritional benefits, however where teff truly comes into its own is in the form of flour. 

Due to its small size the milling process is not believed to remove any of the germ or bran and so all of the nutrients are retained. Unlike some other gluten-free flours that create oddly textured baked goods, it's quite good to work with.

A 2012 study by the Centre of Food at the Manchester Metropolitan University, found that eating bread made from teff during pregnancy maintains iron stores. Further studies at the Centre suggest it improves iron stores in female athletes too. When the flour is fermented, such as a sourdough process, it increases the amount of iron absorbed into the system. 

But dietitian Georgie Rist cautions against applying the "superfood" label.

"Every week there is a new superfood. We forget that we have been eating superfoods for years, but just not calling them that," she says.

"Variety is the spice of life and it is important to have a number of options to include in a healthy, balanced whole food diet. Teff is simply an addition to our plethora of whole grains, which is exciting."

Coconut, banana and cherry muffins

Makes 11

Ingredients

½ cup shredded coconut

1 tbsp linseed

2 tbsp coconut sugar or brown sugar

⅓  cup teff

¼  cup vanilla yoghurt 

⅓  coconut flour

⅓ cup coconut oil

⅔ cup frozen cherries, roughly chopped

3 ripe bananas, mashed with a fork

2 tsp baking powder

4 eggs

Method 

Preheat oven to 180C and line your muffin tray with cases.

Combine the linseed, half the shredded coconut and one tablespoon  of sugar into a bowl and mix together. Set aside to sprinkle on top of your muffins before baking.

Mix the coconut oil and remaining one tablespoon  of sugar until well combined. Beat in two eggs then half the coconut flour. Mix well to ensure it is combined before adding the remaining eggs, and then the rest of the flour.

Add the teff, baking powder, yoghurt, remaining coconut, banana and cherries to your batter and stir well to combine.

Spoon into the cases and sprinkle the coconut crumble mixture evenly over the top. 

Bake until they are firm and a skewer comes out clean. Cooking time varies in different ovens but it will be about 30 minutes.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool.