Ethiopian grain hailed as new ‘superfood’?


The popularity of gluten-free grains and products have been increasing in recent years. And to add to the growing list of options to choose from is an iron rich grain that's making its way from the Horn of Africa to kitchens around Australia.

Misrak Tekle runs an Ethiopian style restaurant in Melbourne.

Ms Tekle describes the early stages in the production of Injera, which include mixing a flour with water and a starter mix - made from yeast.

Teff is an iron rich grain that hails from Ethiopia, and it is the main ingredient in the country's national dish.

"This is the main food, 365 days, some people like it for breakfast," she said.

This is then kneaded into a dough and left to ferment for exactly 24 hours. The mixture is then poured onto a heated flat round plate. The end result is a flat bread, similar to a pancake. It's been consumed in the Horn of Africa for centuries.

And the recent discovery in the West of its nutritious benefits means it's now making its way into kitchens around Australia.

Andrew Dannaoui runs a health food store in Melbourne's inner west. He said he's seen a growth in demand for Teff in the last six months.

"Probably a weekly basis, we would sell something like 10 to 20 packets a week, Mr Dannaoui said.

"It sort of sells quite quickly, there's a number of people who know about it. So when we first started, we'd be lucky to sell five packets over 12 weeks, and now we're selling 10 to 20 packets per week.

"So there's definitely the demand (that) is growing. People are becoming more aware of it, and knowing a lot more about the product."

That popularity is being pushed by celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow who are fans.

Sue Radd is a nutrionist and dietitian at Sydney's Nutrition and Wellbeing Clinic.

"Teff is gluten free which does make it appealing to certain groups of peopleIn reality only about 1 percent of the population has coeliac disease, but there are more people these days, maybe about 10 to 15 percent of the population that are avoiding things like wheat for other reasons.

"And so Teff can be useful in that regard, and the whole category of gluten free foods is really huge at the moment and growing. To give you some indication, in the US alone, it's worth about five to ten US billion dollars," she said.

Ms Radd said Teff is also nutritious and can be used for a variety of things.

"It tends to be a bit higher in a trace element called Manganese, and Copper and it does have the nutrients that all the other whole grains have, which is protein, good carbohydrates and fibre and so on. But it also includes something called resistant starch."

"Now research on all whole grains has shown that fibre and resistant starch are incredibly important for our gut our bowel, because these components promote the growth of healthy bacteria which are known to be really important for our immunity. In fact they're now saying that about 80 percent of our immunity in our body occurs at the gut level," she added.

That's something that doesn't come as a surprise to Misrak Tekle.

"People here (Australia), the majority of people, have a gluten intolerance and gluten allergies so that's the best thing for them. It would be healthier than wheat flour," said Ms Tekle.

But Sue Radd cautioned rushing to the nearest health food store to stock up on it.

"I think it's good to have a diversity of whole grains in your diet. Now whether Teff is the 'super food' or 'super grain' amongst all the other grains, that's still to be proven. Because if you look at the evidence that's out there, in terms of scientific evidence, very little research has been to date in humans looking at the effects of Teff in the body so a lot of it is evidence that's inferential," she said.

"So in other words, we've inferred that it's going to be good for the body, based on its nutritional composition. There probably is a lot more hype, marketing hype, than scientific evidence in terms of the health outcomes, but it's likely that the benefits will be there."

More than 6 million farmers in Ethiopia grow Teff. But the Ethiopian government - worried about the possibility of local stocks running out - have banned exports of the raw grain since 2006.

So expatriates here like Misrak Tekle rely on other sources.

"For now I'm getting it from Indian stores. Indians they start producing - so they start importing to Australia. So that's where we get it from," she said.

Now that Western consumers are getting a taste for Teff, the Ethiopian government is reassessing that export ban.

And local grain could be on the market one day with some Australian farmers trialling the crop.

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