Ethiopian teff may help marathoners
By Galen Moore, Globe Correspondent, 4/14/2004
One theory says that they win because of what they eat. Ever since the Kenyan runner Ibrahim Hussein took the Boston Marathon laurel in 1988, runners from Kenya and Ethiopia have dominated the men's race. In the women's race, Ethiopian Fatuma Roba came in first three years in a row, beginning in 1997.
Of course, lean physiques, training, and determination are big factors in the Ethiopians' successes. But an Idaho farmer thinks the Ethiopian victories are also due to a little-known ancient grain called teff. Resembling bleached poppy seeds, the tiny grains of teff are milled to make injera. This sour flatbread, the staple of the Ethiopian diet, is served with most meals.
Thirty years ago, Idaho grower Wayne Carlson found teff in Ethiopia, when he was a public health officer studying tropical diseases there. In 1984, Carlson began growing teff on farmland in Idaho's Snake River Valley, supplying Ethiopian immigrants in this country. Surprisingly, says Carlson, the section of western Idaho near the Oregon border on which he grows roughly 2 million pounds of the grain a year is, agriculturally, almost identical to the high mountain plains of Ethiopia. His teff, he says, "is fat and happy here." In Ethiopia, teff isn't just an important staple. The flatbread injera is used to scoop food and eat it. "Everybody eats injera every day, and they don't get bored," says Misrak Assefa, co-owner of the South End's Addis Red Sea restaurant. Injera takes the place of both place and silverware at Addis, where spicy stews of vegetables and meats are served directly on the broad, thick, pancake-like bread. Diners fold the bread around their food.According to Carlson, teff has roughly the same amount of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and fiber as high-quality whole wheat. But teff's proteins are configured as albumins -- the same kind of protein in egg whites -- which the body can assimilate rapidly, with minimal effort. Teff also contains a great deal of potassium and calcium, says the Idaho grower, both important for muscle contractions and nerve transmission. "Teff is a big part of my diet, just as it is for all Ethiopian athletes," says Ethiopian runner Elfenesh Alemu, who will run Monday along with three others from her country. In 2002, Alemu finished third with a time of 2:26:01.For many years, Ethiopia has had recurring famines. Since a 1984 famine killed an estimated 1 million, the country has been plagued by cyclical food and water shortages, says Nathaniel Raymond of Oxfam America.
Nonetheless, Ethiopian runners have taken 23 of the 54 medals available in Olympic or World Championship distance events that have taken place since 2000, says Barbara Huebner of the sports media consulting firm Global Althletics. No other country has won more than 10.
The four runners who have been training intensively in the high-altitude Ethiopian plains for Monday's 26-mile race will arrive at Logan Airport this week. While competitors from Boston and elsewhere labor to climb Heartbreak Hill, the Ethiopians may be passing effortlessly, fueled by their native grain.
Teff grain is available at Whole Foods Markets at 200 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge, 617-491-0040, and 170 Great Road, Bedford, 781-275-8264. Teff flour is at South End Emporium, 469 Columbus Ave., 617-536-7172, and Harvest Co-op, 581 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-1580. For teff recipes go to www.teffco.com.