This is another installment of “Dear Davey H” in which I respond to a reader’s question. In this instance, I discuss a grain called teff.
Dear Davey H,
I am always in search of ways to be healthier, be happier and, oh yeah, to save the world. Recently I came across this article about an alleged new super grain called “teff.” Is this stuff for realz? Is teff the next quinoa? Are grains OK to eat? I hear so many bad things about them from my friends who’ve read Wheat Belly and Grain Brain.
-Insane About Grain
Teff – The Real Deal?
Yeah, it’s confusing, right? Grains used to be good for us. Now they’re bad for us. Except for certain grains.
And those few healthy grains always seem to come at a price. I don’t simply mean that their newfound hipster status makes them expensive, which is also true. I mean that they’re popularity often comes at the expense of some other value we hold dear such as protecting the environment or the rights of farm workers and local consumers.
Where Does Teff Fit In?
Insane, you know what I love about your question? Whenever I start to feel like I’m working my way up the Food Geek pyramid, a question like yours comes around that puts me back in my place.
I have to admit, although I had actually heard of teff before, I had no idea what it was. Ancient super grains are supposed to have exotic, hard to pronounce names, like quinoa, amaranth or Cap’n Crunch.
Teff sounds more like something that my college roommates would smoke in our room while I was off studying (really, that’s how it played out). Teff sounds like something Homer Simpson would drink.
Teff doesn’t sound like a so-called “super grain.”
Apparently, I’m wrong, as the article you sent from The New York Times (motto: All the Corrections Fit to Print) attests. Let’s dissect this article and see if the “super grain” label holds up.
“When Laura Ingalls, an avid runner from Boston…”
Stop right there New York Times! Laura Ingalls? Really? Like Laura Ingalls whose “Pa” grew wheat in the fields that surrounded their Little House on the Pprairie? In a story about grain? You’re going to drop that on us and not even mention her namesake? What’s happening to real journalism?
Teff’s Unique Health Benefits
Insane, you probably were asking me about the health claims in the article and not the made up names of its protagonists.
Let’s look at the claims one by one.
“It has more calcium and vitamin C than almost any other grain.”
The calcium claim holds up. A single serving of teff has about one-third the minimum recommendation from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to my research (because someone has to research this stuff), amaranth is the only other grain that is a decent source of calcium
The thing is, calcium is a very easy nutrient to get. It’s in dairy and just about any vegetable that doesn’t flop over when you hold it upright. Calcium is important for good skeletal health but it gets more attention than other critical nutrients with common deficiencies such as vitamins D and K as well as magnesium and phosphorous.
I researched this claim far and wide (because someone has to research this stuff). I found plenty of “lame stream” and, ahem, “fair and balanced” media articles making the claim that teff is a good source of vitamin C. But when I go to the primary sources, bupkis (who I believe was a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. I don’t research football). I checked out the USDA’s own database, the always in-depth and often actually accurate SELFNutritionData.com, and primary source research from Pubmed and Google Scholar. There is nothing to substantiate this claim. They all indicate teff’s vitamin C content is negligible.
“It is high in protein and iron, and much of its fiber is a type known as resistant starch”
After extensive research (because someone has to research this stuff), I can definitively assert that this claim is both true and false. Teff , like quinoa and a few other “ancient grains,” is a source of complete protein. Protein is made up of a chain of molecules called “amino acids.” Your body manufactures many amino acids to make the protein it needs but there are nine amino acids that can only come from food. When foods contain all nine, they’re called a “complete protein.” Very few plant-based foods are complete proteins. Teff is one of them.
But media types often conflate “complete proteins” with “high protein” and this isn’t necessarily true. While there is no definition of the term “high protein,” I tend to use a single egg (6g protein) as the benchmark of high protein. A single serving of teff has about 4.5g or protein. Meanwhile, quinoa, another alleged high protein grain has 4 grams.
Teff (and quinoa) are good sources of protein, especially for vegetarians or people whose love for grain-based foods can be satisfied with teff. They’re not, however, high protein.
Based on my research (because someone has to research this stuff), teff is indeed a strong source of iron. Other ancient grains are comparable or better including amaranth, farro, freekeh (NOTE TO INSANE: I wish you asked about freekeh instead. I think I could have a lot more fun writing about “freekeh grain.”) and sorghum (another pun-derful name). But the king of iron-filled grains is the lowly and conventional oat. Rye is no slouch either.
The thing of it is, if you’re an adult dude or a post-menopausal woman, you probably don’t need much iron if you’re eating a relatively balanced diet. Women in their child-bearing years, vegetarians and children may have a legit reason to pump up the iron in their diet. Teff is a reasonable source. There are many more accessible sources including most meat, beans, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens and many fortified foods if you roll that way (and I suggest you don’t).
My research (because someone has to research this stuff) led me to do the following.
I’m writing down something on a piece of paper. I’m putting it in an envelope that has the following written on its outside:
What is the snappy new nutrition buzzword of 2017?
Here is what that looks like.
Resistant starches are complex carbohydrates (carbs other than sugar) that aren’t digested and absorbed by the digestive system. They occur naturally in some foods such as beans and seeds. Other foods contain resistant starch during their natural life-cycle but the starch content decreases over time. Green bananas are loaded with resistant starches but those starches break down into sugar as the bananas ripen. Still, other foods may develop resistant starch as their processed. For example, the carbohydrates in pasta become resistant starch if you let the pasta cool overnight and eat it directly from the refrigerator the next day without reheating.
The evidence in favor of eating resistant starches is strong. They appear to help people feel full, lose weight, increase insulin sensitivity and reduce the chances of type 2 diabetes. They also are helpful for 2016’s nutrition buzzword, the gut (aka the microbiome).
Finally, they can make you gassy and while you may not consider that to be an advantage, I’m always looking for new ways to justify the rude noises I make in public.
Teff is a good natural source of resistant starch but its total content is not significantly greater than oats.
When Super Grains Join the Dark Side
This concluding quote in the article from a company creating teff-based products says it all:
“I think if we can turn teff into things like bars, chips, pastas, crackers and cereals, then the market for it could be really big [in the U.S.]”
Say goodbye to those health benefits.
But Are Grains Safe?
Insane, the Karma Sense blog often addresses the question of whether grains are healthful but we may as well summarize it again.
- Grains can be part of a healthy diet.
- Grains are not a necessary part of the diet.
- Some people have conditions that are better served by avoiding some or all grains. These include but are not limited to celiac disease, allergies, sensitivities and joneses. If you’re not familiar with the last one, it’s when you have a craving for something and once you get it, you can’t stop eating it (as in “I really have a jones for some bacon-and-ranch-flavored-chocolate-covered-cheese-puffs.”)
- If you’re into self-experimentation, stop eating all grains for a few weeks and see how you feel and how it affects your weight and other vital signs that are important to you. By doing so, you may find things move in a positive direction in which case you discovered something important about yourself that you can use in the future. If you miss grains but like the results, try adding back some of the gluten-free versions and see if you stay on track.
- Don’t jump on the gluten-free product bandwagon unless your eyes are wide open. First of all, I don’t think such a bandwagon actually exists so if you see one it may just be a grain-deprivation mirage. Secondly, many gluten-free packaged products are ultra-processed crap with no redeeming value. Read the ingredient list carefully
Let’s throw in a comment about ancient grains. Wheat and corn are the two most common grains in the North American diet. The wheat and corn we currently eat are bred to minimize their time-to-market and the cost to produce them. This is done with no consideration of features such as taste or nutrition content. That doesn’t mean they’re bad for you. It just means that Monsanto and Dupont don’t worry about those aspects of their products.
Many of the ancient grains are the genetic relatives and predecessors of the modern grains we eat.
Because Someone Has To Research This Stuff
To me, the most amazing thing about this article is that there doesn’t really seem to be a single place to go to compare the qualities of different grains one may want to eat. That is, until now. Click on the image below and you can see a comparison between a number of grains, both common and ancient. This comparison looks at the nutritional qualities and the approximate cost.
I hope that by creating this table, I may move up a level or two in the food geek pyramid. But for you,
If you’re looking to add a new food to your diet based on the food’s ability to address a significant health goal or concern, do it with full knowledge of the options. Otherwise, you’re just reacting to yet another surreptitious marketing piece in the news.
Yours in good karma,
P.S. If you’re a current owner of The Karma Sense Eating Plan, THE comprehensive guide to better health, better happiness and saving the world, you should print out the included table and shove it in the Food Lists appendix of your book. It will fit perfectly (in context if not form factor).
If you have an electronic version, there are all sorts of fancy ways to link to this table.
If you’re not a current owner of The Karma Sense Eating Plan, assuage your FOMO (which with yet another nod to Dave Barry, would be an excellent name for a rock and roll band), by getting your copy here:
(black and white)
And if you want to make sure you are always up to date on the latest in the wacky world of feeling good…