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An African Grain Joins the Gluten-Free Market for People With Celiac

Teff is a gluten-free staple grain from eastern Africa

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This is the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

Teff is a common part of the diet in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. This nutritious grain is very small. It has a mild, nutty taste.

People use teff flour to make bread and other foods. Now teff is finding new uses in foods for people with celiac disease.

People with celiac disease cannot process gluten. Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley. Glutens can be found not just in foods but also medicines and other products.

The immune system is supposed to protect the body. But celiac causes the immune system to damage the small intestine. The disease can cause stomach pains, bloating and diarrhea. It can also cause weight loss and make people feel continually hungry. It interferes with the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food.

In the past, celiac disease was considered rare and limited mostly to people of European ancestry. The rate of reported cases was one in ten thousand people.

Today the estimate is about one in one hundred thirty-three Americans. But celiac researcher Alessio Fasano says until recent years not much was known about the disease.

ALESSIO FASANO: "Now, with large epidemiological studies done everywhere including here, we can say with a great level of confidence that the disease affects roughly the same percentage of the general public worldwide. That is roughly one percent. So it is not rare at all."

Doctor Fasano directs the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He says the disease can be very mild. But more serious cases can interfere with a child's growth. Adults can suffer liver damage, joint pain and other problems.

The main way to control the disease is to avoid glutens. There is a growing market for products that are gluten-free.

Farmers in Nevada grow about half the teff produced in the United States. The crop is currently worth only about one million dollars to farmers in that state. But teff grower David Eckert is hopeful.

DAVID ECKERT: "The non-gluten market, I think is going to be a big market. I think it's just getting there and knowing the right people, getting into the larger companies that are going to really use the product."

Some people without celiac disease say they feel better when they avoid gluten. But many scientists question if this is really true.

Seven years ago, Anna Quigg was surprised to learn that she has celiac disease. She says gluten-free products are much easier to find these days. She buys teff and other whole grains.

ANNA QUIGG: "Who thinks they are allergic to bread, you know?"

And that's the VOA Special English Agriculture Report, written by Jerilyn Watson with Steve Baragona. I'm Bob Doughty.