Teff (also spelled “tef”) is an ancient whole grain grown traditionally in Ethiopia. In addition to being naturally gluten-free, it’s also a great source of nutrients, including protein, amino acids, fiber, calcium, and iron. Because it has a low glycemic index in addition to abundant nutrients, teff is also considered a good food for preventing and managing diabetes.
Recently, researchers from the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) found yet another health benefit of this tiny ancient grain – it appears to increase levels of the antioxidant molecule glutathione in human cells. It may also increase gene expression related to glutathione pathways.
“There are previous reports of teff antioxidant activity in vitro, but there has not been any research using physiologically relevant cell models,” said study leader Ayalew Ligaba Osena, PhD. “Human cell models are more relevant to our health.”
To investigate the antioxidant potential of teff, the researchers tested it on a line of human leukemia monocytic cells known as THP-1, which are widely used in disease studies. These cells were incubated in laboratory-prepared extracts of both brown and ivory teff for a period of 24 hours. After the incubation period, the cells were collected and tested to determine whether the teff had affected cell viability by measuring the number of live and dead cells. They also measured glutathione (GSH) levels in the cells and analyzed the glutathione-pathway genes from the cells’ RNA.
The results, the researchers wrote, “revealed that tef grain extracts increased cellular GSH levels. This response was more pronounced in the brown-tef extracts compared to the ivory-tef accession analyzed in this study. This appears to be due to the higher phytochemical content in brown tef compared to ivory tef. The most active fraction of brown tef also increased the expressions of some GSH-pathway genes.”
The results of the study show promise in several areas. Broadly, Osena says, this line of research is particularly relevant for people who are seeking nutritious, gluten-free grains. Teff is currently grown in the U.S. as a forage crop, and specialty stores import the flour for human consumption. Osena expects consumption to increase along with the popularity of gluten-free diets.
Osena’s lab is now analyzing 85 types of brown teff, with the goal of identifying varieties with the highest antioxidant properties. “We are finding some promising varieties,” Osena said. “We plan to isolate genes regulating increased antioxidant activity in teff that can be used to engineer antioxidant properties in teff and other crops such as rice.”
For Osena, who grew up on an Ethiopian farm where he raised and regularly ate teff, the long-term goal is to develop technologies that will help farmers. “I aim to understand the genetics behind teff’s desirable traits, including nutritional quality, antioxidant properties, and abiotic stress resilience,” Osena says. “If we come up with significant discoveries, we can take them to the field to benefit teff producers here in the U.S. and Africa”