In the UPM-BERNAS Food Analysis Laboratory, scientists are busy researching on the nutrients in the humble grain. Assoc. Prof. Kharidah runs a series of study that meticulously records every single nutrient content of all the commercially available rice, including the proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals to minute traces of antioxidants. It is a labor-intensive work, and her duty is to redefine what rice really means to the nation nutritionally. Previously, the database on rice was very limited, indecisive and did not reflect the local reality. Most information was taken from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Composition Table. But rice that is available in Malaysia can be divided into 17 categories. With all the confounding types, it is reasonable to question the accuracy of foreign data, and the public has to know what is in the rice they eat everyday.
Although the research is funded by BERNAS, Kharidah insists that their findings are genuine and non-biased, “we are more interested in the nutrition than marketing, although much of our research is ultimately geared to the pursuit of funding”. While people are concerned if eating rice contributes to weight gain, the rice researcher would like to clarify the confusion by singling out one important parameter – the Glycemic Index. Now, do not be flabbergasted by the scientific jargon just yet. The term behind the word lays a solid logical foundation on the choice of rice that we consume.
Glycemic Index (GI) is a ranking system for carbohydrate-based foods. It indicates how fast the food can cause blood glucose to rise. Foods with low GI cause a slow rise in blood glucose. Glucose is present due to the breakdown of starch. Having said that, the more starch there is in the rice, the higher is its GI and that is something you want to avoid. Correct? Not quite, while it is true that lower glycemic index foods contribute to lower blood glucose, the question is; what variety contains more starch and what contains less? Two types of rice that contain the same amount of starch can also have different GI. Confused?
The major component of rice is starch which range from 80 percent to 90 percent of its content. This starch can be further subdivided into resistant and digestible starches. Resistant starch is not digested by enzymes in our body and can thus be classified as dietary fiber. An increment in the resistant starch content of rice will be followed by a reduction in its GI. Starch consists of two types of polymers: amylose and amylopectin. The higher the amylose content of the rice, the more resistant starch will be formed during cooking and the lower is the GI. Steaming of rice resulted in more resistant starch formation than cooking in a rice cooker, said Kharidah. The GI of rice is relatively low compared to that of other sources of carbohydrate. But if rice is overly consumed, an accumulation will occur in our blood glucose level sending the repercussions of consuming rice. What can we do to counter this? Rice is a staple food; it is almost unthinkable to cut off rice entirely from out diet.
Nowadays, fiber is a new marketing hype. Manufacturers are capitalizing on the high-fiber trend, including “resistant starch”.
Unlike most carbohydrates, resistant starch is able to avoid digestion and pass straight into the large intestine, where it can become food for the good bacteria. On the contrary, carbohydrate such as sugar is digested and absorbed into the blood stream as glucose (linking to high blood glucose level) at a rapid speed. To those who are watching their weight, this is good news for you. When the starch is digested and absorbed, it means that it contributes zero calorie.
Still, beneath the scientist’s critique, lies a big confusion among the public. Kharidah recalls many of her encounters with the public during exhibitions over the years. People are puzzled by the true nutrition of rice. They want to know the best choice they can choose as the staple diet. Also, influenced by the anti-carbohydrate movement in the west, Asian diets – and our premier staple diet-face a spate of new challenges, although it has not yet fallen into similar sentiment-far from it still, but demands are decreasing, people are eating less rice these days.
So, is rice really bad? Kharidah wants the consumers to use GI index and amylose content as a guideline in choosing the best rice. All rice contain equal amount of energy, and there is no point in comparing the calories. The regulation does not require rice to be nutritionally labeled, and existing nutritional labels on rice packages does not tell you the GI or the antioxidants level.
The issue with consumers today is whether eating too much rice is unhealthy and that will lead to chronic diseases like diabetes or obesity. If so, rice could be in a looming position of being removed from the premier staple list. If not, rice, with its rich historical significance will continue to nourish the nation.
It is the effort of the research team to approach this matter from a position of science. Thanks to a long term study in rice content composition, all the 17 local rice categories have been nutritionally determined, and the scientists now have the information the public would like to know. Data collected show that there were differences in the nutrition composition of different types of rice – which type has the lowest glycemic index, and which one has the lowest calorie in particular. According to Kharidah, “Basmati has the lowest glycemic index and it is very suitable for those with diabetes. It is not just the carbohydrates that are being scrutinized. What also spark our interest the natural color or pigments on the rice or rather known as antioxidants, and that is one more big interest we are exploring into”.
What about other types of rice? The different effects of rice have only been in focus by consumers of late. People are more cautious about their health and thus expanding their scope on food and venturing into alternative varieties that are proven to be a healthier take from the norm thanks to advance scientific research. One of these new varieties that is the latest craze in all things healthy is brown rice. Brown rice is rice that did not undergo the polishing process, leaving the bran layer (which is full of fiber, vitamin B, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin) intact.
Brown rice is relatively new in the sense of product popularity. Not much is known about consuming it and therefore it has still yet to reach a selling point to meet the status of white rice. Many people who decided to switch from white rice to brown rice find it harder to cook brown rice. It takes a longer time to cook, and its taste and texture is something out of ordinary as well.
Yet even if the basmati or red or brown or black rice had been awarded the new “avant-garde” of super rice, the white rice remains the nation biggest consumed category; and many wonder where would our local white rice fit into this super-rice race? “It is a good question,” says Kharidah. “Especially when all the colors and fiber have already been stripped off, it is common that people do not view white rice on par as the brown counterpart”. She adds, however “there is more to quality of rice that determines the public demand. The texture and flavour play equally important role as well, ultimately, rice is more than just energy supplier, it has become an iconic cultural staple.
Malaysian cultural food is diverse, refined, and regionally distinct and at the same time accompanied by rich cultural etiquette of preparation, presentation and consumption. To start with the basic, Malaysians love their favorite dishes with rice. The Indians like basmati, the Chinese like fragrant rice and the Malays like the local white rice. The irony of all this is that despite the fact that brown or colored rice is highly promoted as the healthier alternatives, people still prefer to have white rice to go with their dishes. “People will more likely to stick to the familiar mouth feel they grow up eating, although they do not mind eating brown rice for health purposes. But let me assure you, rendang will always go best with our white rice” says Kharidah. “White rice will still be consumed due to the dishes that people like to associate the rice with. It just tastes weird if you serve rendang with a bowl of unpolished red rice” added Kharidah.
We hope that our findings will provide a better insight into the rice we consume everyday, sometimes it is good to add some varieties in your everyday meal that is the beauty with rice – regardless of types, each type is good for different reasons. It is so versatile that it is meant to feed every single mouth in the world the way they like it, making it not only a necessity but also a pleasure.