A little over a year ago, in 2004, “low-carb” was still in high gear. Many multinational food companies had made large research and development investments into new products designed to focus on that consumer preference. In some cases, jobs were on the line. At Kendall College of Culinary Arts (Chicago), a well-known, though sometimes controversial, research chef addressed a group of industry experts and VIP guests. His opening statement created a minor uproar. “The low-carb fad is dead. Do not invest significant additional capital dollars into that area.” A number of those in attendance openly disagreed, and some still do.

Earlier this year, the USDA issued its replacement for the well-recognized but poorly understood food guide pyramid. Many millions of dollars will be spent to promote the new dietary guidelines. What is the cornerstone of these new recommendations? The U.S. government will focus its efforts on having people eat well-balanced diets, avoiding food fads and eating whole grains.

In April 2005, Food Arts magazine featured a “high-carb,” indulgent dessert on the cover. The May 2005 issue of Bon Appetit features a huge plate of pasta on the cover. Across America, upscale diners are ordering risotto, paella (gourmet rice dishes) and pasta entrées of all kinds. On the Food Network, Mario Batali is “Iron Chef Italian” and crushing his opponents using high-carb pasta creations. In the restaurant business, the customer is still always right. They vote with their wallets, and they are ordering rice and pasta.

Rice on Global Menus

Throughout human history, rice has been a daily staple food, the primary source of calories for much of the world's population. It is one of the first grains to have been domesticated and cultivated. Today, most of the world's rice still is grown by hand by traditional, old-fashioned methods. Rice, essentially a type of grass, requires over 100 days of warm, sunny weather to mature and ripen. It requires an abundance of water during growing. Modern, mechanized farming requires that the land be drained to allow the use of heavy equipment. This fact severely limits the areas where rice can be cultivated. Rice farming in the U.S. is generally the most advanced in the world. In fact, lasers are used to level and shape the fields. However, in regard to the actual milling process, the Japanese are, by far, the most sophisticated. A modified Japanese milling system is used in most modern rice mills. Japanese consumers are extremely concerned about rice quality. Japanese millers go to great lengths to prevent rice cracking during milling, which leads to the kernel drying out. This demand for gourmet quality causes Japanese consumers to pay as much as five times the price for premium rice.

In spite of the inequities in technology, China leads the world in rice production. In fact, the U.S. is fourth--behind China, India and Indonesia. Regarding exports, both Thailand and Vietnam exceed the U.S. in sales.

When rice is eaten in conjunction with certain legumes, the meal provides a complete protein source. After harvest, it can be stored at ambient temperatures almost indefinitely--an important food supply long after the growing season. The mild flavor of "polished"/white rice lends itself to almost any recipe or style of cooking. It is an extremely low-cost grain, yet rice can be the main ingredient in some of the world's most high-end dishes. Saffron-infused paella or white truffle risotto, both primarily rice dishes, may cost easily over $30.00 a serving in London, Paris or Tokyo. In the U.S., top chefs in San Francisco, New Orleans and New York have embraced a new philosophy of international culinary inclusion. The technical wisdom of imperial Chinese methods is being blended with the wildly flavorful spices of Indian culinary style. The precision of Japanese sushi and the heat of Caribbean jerk are being paired with elegant French presentations. After 10,000 years, rice has become a "new" sensation.

Sage V Foods (Los Angeles) is an innovative developer of rice-based products for consumers. Pete Vegas, CEO, is the founder and owner of Sage V. His plan is to develop and market an extensive line of new and innovative rice flours, rice starches and ready-to-use rice products. Vegas has authored an informative series of documents titled "Rice 101," which contains science-based rice data. (See Website Resources.) Elaine Champagne, Ph.D., of the USDA's Southern Research Center (New Orleans), and Harmeet Guraya, Ph.D., have been involved in cooperative R&D projects with the company. The team has created a new process by which rice starch may be extracted with very low damage: they say it results in less than half the starch damage incurred using prior processes. Sage V has been granted an exclusive license for the patent.

Brown Rice

Worldwide, brown rice consumption is extremely low when compared to that of polished white rice. Brown rice is the lesser-processed version of the white rice commonly found on American restaurant menus. As much of the bran layer is present on this rice, the protein in brown rice features one of the most complete amino acid profiles of any vegetable or grain. Brown rice is rich in minerals and vitamins and is a more valuable nutrition source than white rice. Why is brown rice consumption so comparatively low? One reason cited by consumers is its long, slow cooking time, due to a slow rate of hydration. Another is its soft, sticky texture, which many diners find unacceptable.

Guraya has developed a process that solves both of these issues. Parboiled rice flour is used to bombard the brown rice, creating micro perforations in the waxy layer of bran. This allows the kernel to absorb water more rapidly and, therefore, cook much faster. The result, claims Champagne, is a brown rice that “cooks like and eats like white rice.”

The patented process also reduces the cost of processing, reduces environmental pollution and yields a “brown rice” product that will be far more appealing to American consumers.

Rice on America's Menus

Perhaps the “hottest” new trend in dining is the “fusion” of Latin flavors and cooking techniques with those of another ethnic cuisine. Chicago's new rising star in this venue is Vermilion Restaurant. Blending upscale Indian menu items with Mexican, Caribbean and South American flavors, ingredients and sauces, executive chef Maneet Chauhan has become the darling of the Chicago food scene. Her restaurant and dishes have been featured in USA Today, Chicago Magazine and on national television news. What is the common theme, the cornerstone ingredient that chef Chauhan uses to form a bridge between these two very different styles of cooking? Rice! Chauhan says, “Having grown up in a Punjabi household in India, rice is one food that I always crave. There are almost 600 varieties of rice cultivated in India. Rice is, perhaps, the most versatile of all grains. In addition to the well-known pilafs and risottos, ground rice is used to make wonderful dosa (Indian crepes) and phirnee (an Indian dessert). We have six or seven items on our menu, served with different types of rice. The most popular item on our menu is Lobster Portuguese with Saffron Rice.” Rice is back on America's menus and, at Vermilion Restaurant, it is back in a big way.

Healthy Pasta?

An Italian princess, Caterina de Medici, brought gourmet cooking to France in the mid-1500s. (Yes, the Italians taught the French to cook.) One of the delicacies the princess insisted on eating was pasta. Legend has it that Marco Polo journeyed to China via Asia and, on his return, brought the secrets of making pasta back to Italy. Historical records do prove that the Chinese were creating gourmet noodle dishes thousands of years before the French “invented” haute cuisine. Pasta has been an important food item for much of human history. The almost limitless variety of shapes, sizes, colors and textures makes it a perfect culinary ingredient. Chefs love to cook with it. Consumers love to eat it. Some of the most successful and most profitable foodservice products ever created use it as a primary element. Today, pasta is back on restaurant menus everywhere. Consumers always have known that pasta is delicious. World champion endurance athletes have proven the value of pasta as a healthy energy source. The USDA is recommending an increase in consumption of whole grains and foods made with grains. Can pasta be a part of that healthy eating plan? One company that proves the answer is “yes” is Barilla America Inc. (Bannockburn, Ill.).

Barilla is a leading brand of pasta in Italy. The company employs state-of-the-art milling, formulation and manufacturing systems. Additionally, Barilla is on the chef's edge of new product development. Whole-wheat pasta has been around for a long time. However, up to now, chefs have been reluctant to put it on the menu. Consumers also have been less than enthusiastic about it. Again, the reason has been taste and, perhaps more importantly, texture. In the past, pasta formulated to have a high percentage of whole grain never yielded an acceptable texture when cooked. The addition of bran to the dough matrix has had a noticeable and negative effect on eating qualities. Healthy eating gurus can preach all they want, but consumers will not buy a food over the long term unless it tastes delicious. Barilla may have solved this riddle.

The company recently introduced a new product, Pasta PLUS. Chefs who tested the product stated that it truly is an advance in eating quality, when compared to previous whole grain pastas. Dramatically higher in fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids than regular pasta, this is clearly a healthier alternative. Will consumers agree? Only time will tell. However, one thing is clear: American diners have become more sophisticated in their understanding of both nutrition and culinary arts. The low-carb diet was a fad. There is now a growing demand for delicious and healthful foods. This is a trend with legs. Those companies that recognize the trend and capitalize on it early will find great success in the future. Rice and pasta. Delicious and healthy? Savvy chefs and wise food scientists know they can be both.