Oryza sativa, better known as rice to most of us, sustains two-thirds of the world’s population. It is the staple food for this country. Four out of five Malaysians are self-proclaimed ‘rice barrel’, claiming that there is no way their day will end if there is no meal of rice. Like in other Asian countries, rice is a way of life and much of our culture revolves around it. The Chinese and Malays, for example, believe that the rice container at home should not be empty as rice symbolizes wealth and prosperity.
The plate of rice on our table has become so habitual that this unpretentious grain has been taken for granted. It’s time we ask ourselves, who will see to it that our country has a steady and dependable supply of rice; who makes sure that the price of rice is fair, that all of us, from all walks of life, will be able to afford good quality rice?
FROM PADDY TO PLATE
Growing up, I’m sure you remember being admonished to polish off every grain of rice on your plate so as not to make waste the journey the rice has made from paddy to plate. Our parents weren’t kidding around about this arduous journey and as we appreciate our steaming plate of rice that fills our tummies and gives us strength, we should also take the time to appreciate the journey of our national staple.
This rice voyage typically begins with the sowing of paddy seeds in the fields where the length of time rice take to grow from seedling to a tall mature plant is about 120 days. By this time, the paddy plants take on a change of colour from green to a deep golden yellow, hanging heavily from the tips of the stalks, signifying that the crop is now ready for harvest.
Following harvest, the paddy goes through a battery of processing stages, depending on the various types of grains, before arriving at your nearest commercial establishment ready to be purchased and cooked into the soft fluffy stuff that we eat every day. Having said that, let’s back-track this story a little, to when before rice comes into its translucent, edible form.
Flow Chart | Commercial Rice Milling System (Source: BERNAS) – Click to Enlarge
BRIEF HISTORY OF RICE
Domestication of rice (Oryza sativa) occurred in the Pearl River valley region of Southern China. Evidence of possible rice cultivation there c. 11,500 years (based on radiocarbon dating) has recently been discovered. However, it is still uncertain if the rice was indeed being cultivated, or instead being gathered from the wild (Harrington 1997). From Pearl valley, rice spread to Southeast Asia (Huang et al. 2012) and then to other parts of the world where it now ranks as probably the most important food crop. All varieties of Asian rice came from a single domesticated type that grew as long as 13,500 years ago from the wild rice Oryza rufipogon (Molina J et al. 2011).
Rice contains two major subspecies: the Japanese sticky, short grained, glutinous japonica (or sinica) variety and the non-sticky, long-grained indica variety preferred in other parts of the globe. Rice comes in a variety of colours too including white rice, brown rice, black rice, red rice, and even purple rice. The so-called ‘fragrant’ rice comes from adding fragrance during packaging. However, the nutty flavoured green rice from Vietnam isn’t coloured green. It’s harvested from immature rice kernels and is usually served as dessert in that country.
It has been estimated that half the world's population subsists almost wholly on rice. Farmers in Asia account for around 87% of the world's total rice output. Malaysia has rice production deficit and imports for 2012 was 1,050,000 tons (USDA 2014) coming mostly from the Vietnamese Government guaranteed annual supply of 800,000 tones through BERNAS. A North American consumes around 25 pounds of rice a year whereas an Asian may consume some 10 to 15 times more. According to United Nations, Malaysia is among the top 20 rice-consuming countries. It is unclear if this fact also accounts for Malaysia being ranked by the WHO as the most obese country in Eastern Asia.
Methods of growing rice differ greatly in different localities, but in most Asian countries the traditional hand methods of cultivating and harvesting rice are the norm. The fields are prepared by plowing (typically with simple plows drawn by water buffalo), fertilizing (usually with dung or sewage), and smoothing (by dragging a log over them). With shrinking rice crop areas, labour and water shortages the cost of rice production gradually increases in most countries. Rice is a controlled commodity subsidized by tax payers.
Almost absent of gluten, rice isn’t being used to make roti (bread) or buns unless its flour is mixed with flours made from other grains such as wheat.
Brown rice has a higher food value than white, since the outer brown coatings contain proteins and minerals with its white endosperm being almost entirely carbohydrate. As a food item, rice is low in fat and (compared with other cereal grains) in protein. Furthermore, plant protein is incomplete with the eight essential amino acids being present in insufficient amounts. In the Far East, rice is often eaten with food items and sauces made from the soybean, which can supply a more complete range of amino acids.
In Japan the strong alcoholic beverage sake is brewed from their glutinous rice. In China, rice wine with lower alcoholic content is preferred for cooking purposes.
Rice bran contains an oily inner layer which is heated to produce the much sought after rice bran oil for use in cooking. Rice bran tocotrienols are considered a most bioactive form of the vitamin E family for use in preventive aspects of modern metabolic cardiology.
Although long-chain saturated fats have low health benefits, they are much less easily oxidised by free radicals or modified by glycation (sugar attachment). Current research evidence suggests that only oxidised or modified fats and cholesterol tend to stick to heart arteries. For frying, saturated fats are also more stable. Polyunsaturated fats, on the other hand, are most easily oxidised or modified. Unless sufficient antioxidants are also consumed, these fats can contribute significantly to artery clogging. In individuals who died from heart attacks, their ruptured plaques were found to contain at least 70% oxidised polyunsaturated fats from dietary sources. Generally, higher monounsaturated fat content may be advantageous to those prone to heart disease. Compared to corn oil, rice bran oil or unrefined palm oil is rich in antioxidants. Consequently, corn oil stored in clear plastic bottles may contain higher percentage of oxidised fats compared to unrefined palm oil, sesame oil, or virgin coconut oil.
BROWN VS WHITE RICE
White rice is highly polished to create a smooth-tasting texture after being cooked. The milling process removes the bran and germ containing healthy oil as well as most of its trace nutrients such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, manganese, choline, folate, B3, B5, B6 and iron.
Brown rice is substantially unrefined, but comes from the same rice crop. Without polishing, remains the rice germ intact, and its trace nutrients are significantly higher than polished (white) rice. Indeed, brown rice is probably the only source of vitamin E. While both types of rice have similar glycaemic index (GI), the insulin response (IR) for brown rice is lower than white rice (Miller JB et al. 1992).
HEALTH ISSUES LINKED TO LONG-TERM RICE CONSUMPTION
The comparative insulin (hormone) response scores for starchy or sugary food items are:
Rice, cooked 57
Rice, puffed 328
Rice cake 328
Bread, wholemeal 256
Oat bran 550
Sucrose (table sugar) 680
The insulin response measures the impact of refined grain consumption on stressing our pancreatic beta cells responsible for secreting the hormone insulin used in converting excess blood sugar into triglycerides (stored fats). The higher the insulin response, the greater the risk of developing insulin resistance (pre-diabetes) and/or diabetes mellitus type II. Knowing just the food glycaemic index (GI) without evaluating its insulin response (IR) may not be helpful in reversing metabolic disorders linked to grain consumption. Some insulin is essential for growing muscles since it’s an anabolic hormone. In the long-term, one shouldn’t completely avoid any starch or constantly consume meat/fish without some starch to trigger insulin secretion. However, based on WHO statistics most Malaysians seem to have used their insulin to store fats.
Being easy to genetically modify, some types of rice grains are being genetically modified (GMO) with long-term health consequences remaining largely unknown. There’s golden rice being created in Switzerland, allergen-free rice in Japan, pest-resistant rice in United States, and brown rice that produces human blood albumin (plasma) in China.
Like other grains, rice protein is incomplete: it does not contain all of the eight essential amino acids in sufficient amounts needed for optimum health. Consequently, rice should be combined with other sources of protein, such as nuts, seeds, beans, fish, or meat to complete its amino acid chains.
Rice flour does not contain the protein gluten, so it is suitable for people on a gluten-free diet. Gluten is found in other grains such as wheat, oat, barley and rye. People with severe food allergies or other autoimmune disorders may find gluten toxic to their digestive tract leading to chronic low-grade inflammation. Rice would then be an excellent grain option for them.
Rice may also be made into various types of noodles, buns, and desserts. In Vietnam rice noodles are popular. However, meehoon produced in this country contains as little as 5% rice or rice products.
The rice crop is prone to absorb toxic metals from the soil. US Consumer advocacy group claims that rice and rice products may contain arsenic, which is a known carcinogen. Countries of origin of the rice tested included United States, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India (Consumer Reports 2012). The amounts of arsenic and mercury in rice vary widely with the greater concentration in brown rice since these metals accumulate in the husk and bran. Crops grown in the highlands or in the wild may contain lower detectable heavy metals. In Japan, cadmium found in rice consumed caused the “itai-itai” disease with symptoms including severe osteoporosis, kidney damage, and hypotension (Ikeda et al. 2006).
OTHER NUTRITIONAL GRAINS
From nutritional and economic perspectives, it may be worthwhile for Malaysians to consider adding other nutritional grains to their staple food items.
Excess insulin leads to fat gain through accumulation of triglycerides, which are lipids considered to be more harmful to heart health compared to cholesterol per se. Consequently, glycaemic index and insulin response are important criteria in evaluating quality of starch consumed. Extensive research studies have shown that consuming lower caloric diets helped to extend lifespan of animals. It’s widely believed that it can extend lifespan in human too. Millet and quinoa are the serious contenders in the management of long-term health since they have higher plant protein with slightly lower starch content, GI/IR sores and calories.
ENHANCING HEALTH BENEFITS
Recently, germinated brown rice has been found to have many positive health benefits such as anti-hyperlipidemia (lowering blood fats), anti-hypertension (lowering blood pressure), and reducing risks of some chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer's disease (Wu F et al. 2013). This isn’t surprising since the health-conscious public has long known that germinated (sprouted) grains, seeds or beans possess superior nutritional values compared to non-germinated ones. Extending the pre-germination time could raise quality of bioactive components in brown rice giving it a higher cardio-protective effect by lowering both the LDL-cholesterol (Roohinejad S et al. 2010) and blood glucose levels (Hsu TF et al. 2008). This is likely to be due to the 400% higher dietary fibre found in pre-germinated brown rice compared to refined white rice (Seki T et al. 2005). With its tocotrienols content, rice bran seems to lower blood cholesterol levels just as well as oat bran. Furthermore, there seems to be a significant increase in beneficial bacteria during brown rice intake (Benno Y et al. 1989). For those eager to make this dietary choice, research suggests that incorporating brown rice into the daily diet for just four months may not substantially improve metabolic risk factors (Zhang G et al. 2011). A longer eating habit change is required to achieve desired health benefits.
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Molina, J. Sikora, M. Garud, N. et al. Molecular evidence for a single evolutionary origin of domesticated rice. Proc Nat Acad Sci. 2011;108(20):8351.
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Huang, X, Kurata N, Wei X et al. A map of rice genome variation reveals the origin of cultivated rice. Nature 2012;490(7421):497-501.
Ikeda M, Shimbo S, Watanabe T, et al. Correlation among cadmium levels in river sediment, in rice, in daily foods and in urine of residents in 11 prefectures in Japan. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2006;79:365-70.
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Omidizadeh A, Mirhosseini H et al. Effect of pre-germination time of brown rice on serum cholesterol levels of hypercholest Roohinejad erolaemic rats. J Sci Food Agric. 2010;90(2):245-51.
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USDA Foreign Agriculture Service. Global Agricultural Information Network. Malaysia: Grain and Feed Annual 2012. GAIN report number: MY2001. http://gain.fas.usda.gov/RecentGAIN Publications/GrainandFeedAnnual_KualaLumpur_Malaysia_2-15-2012.pdf. Accessed: 28th September 2014.
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Wu F, Yang N, Toure A, et al. Germinated brown rice and its role in human health. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2013;53(5):451-63.
Zhang G, Pan A, Zong G, et al. Substituting white rice with brown rice for 16 weeks does not substantially affect metabolic risk factors in middle-aged Chinese men and women with diabetes or a high risk for diabetes. J Nutr. 2011;141(9):1685-90.