This is an exciting time for rice. The humble grain—grown around the globe in varieties and textures that each bring a distinct flavor and functionality—is standing out as never before.
Rice from Thailand, especially the fragrant hom mali jasmine variety, could certainly be thought to have been a catalyst, with not only jasmine rice and sticky rice experiencing unexpected front-and-center popularity, but also creating consumer awareness of such offerings as purple rice and red rice. And along with Vietnam, Thailand has made rice noodles practically a staple in many American households.
Recent archeological findings date rice-growing in Thailand to about 4,000 years ago. Today, the country is a leader in growing and exporting globally, currently accounting for 23% of the world’s rice exports, a close second to much-larger India. In fact, Thailand is such a major provider of rice, it recently inked a major deal to supply rice to its fellow Southeast Asian nation, the Philippines, itself a Top 10 rice grower.
The Philippines isn’t the only instance of note for such a “selling coals to Newcastle” scenario in taking advantage of the popularity of upscale rice. Two years ago, Lundberg Family Farms engaged a network of Thai rice farmers in order to add fair-trade Thai hom mali rice to its portfolio of offerings.
Noting that the product could not be grown in California, where Lundberg grows its own rice, the company explained that the rice is “grown in the Mekong River Valley of the Amnat Charoen province of Thailand, near the Laotian border.” Sale of the rice also helps support the local economy, as Lundberg pays the farmers Fair Trade prices and provides additional resources to help the local farmers continue to “improve growing practices and infrastructure.”
Rice is a staff of life to more than half the planet. Moreover, natural by-products of rice milling add to that importance by providing various prepared foods such as noodles, flatbreads, porridges, and other food staples such as dumplings.
According to Innova Market Insights, there has been steady growth of rice as used in whole form, constituting around 25% of the 11 ready meals subcategories in terms of global launch activity, and comprising an 11% share of total global ready meals launches in the first half of 2017.
What’s changing is that the trend also includes different rice varieties, such as the deep purple (and high antioxidant) rice Riceberry variety.
Additional multiple colors and textures of rice, as well as other grains such as quinoa, often are blended together in the products being launched.
Other contributors to the grain’s expanding popularity have included expanding use of such ethnic favorites as Indian basmati, Italian Arborio, wild rice, and Japonica as well as emerging exotic types, for example green bamboo rice and Bhutanese red rice. With tens of thousands of varieties of rice, in a rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes, there’s no limit opportunities for creativity.
Helping to drive the rapid growth in rice and rice-derived products is the gluten-free trend. (While sticky rices often are described as “glutinous,” that is a reference to their texture, not to any allergenic protein. In fact, rice allergies in general are extremely rare.) Many gluten-free baking products rely on brown rice and white rice flour. In fact, four of the top five positionings for rice dishes in the first half of 2017 are health claims, led by “allergy-free” and “gluten-free” claims. These designations were used for 19% and 18% of launches, respectively.
According to the Thai Rice Industry, there is a paradigm shift in food production involving an increasing focus on rice as a functional ingredient—“rice plus”—in a wealth of food products. Examples include rice bran, toasted rice powder, rice starches, rice bran oil, and even such ingredients as brown rice syrup and white food coloring derived from rice.
Suppliers of rice are at the ready with those forms of the grain that are most suitable for batch production. They can supply all manufacturer needs, from cooked grains of hom mali rice, the aromatic Thai jasmine rice for meal kits to pre-portioned and cooked or par-cooked instant rice noodles. And rice ingredient suppliers can provide a variety of modified rice starches, rice bran for gluten-free pastas or tortillas, or rice flours for gluten-free baking mixes.
Leveraging decades of the inexpensive meal option of instant noodles that many Americans recall from college, research chefs have elevated them into bowl and bag format instant noodles dressed with fresher ingredients, “homemade” textures, and flavors such as lemongrass and chili and roasted garlic. Yet many of these formulations use dried rice noodles that cook up with a topping of boiled water or just a few minutes in the microwave.
Maintaining the cold chain environment during processing is critical to preserving quality in rice-based dishes. Due to the limitations of current retort pouch sizes, the shelf stable ambient format has remained a retail product.
Rice bran, rice protein, and rice fiber all have become a standard components of any R&D library for developers seeking non-allergenic and gluten-free soluble or non-soluble fiber addition. Their sweet cousin, rice malt syrup, has also earned a place in many R&D tool boxes as a versatile, natural sweetener.
Rice bran in its milled form has a variety of functions. It is used as processing aid to keep spice mixtures flowing, it can help retain moisture in doughs and cereal products with a somewhat neutral flavor, and it can be used to fortify the nutritional content of a product, as can rice protein. (Rice protein has become an especially important protein source in the tidal wave of plant proteins on the market.)
Rice bran oil is gaining ground rapidly as a desirable oil in food production. It has a clean taste and a high smoke point (450°F), making it highly suitable for friend foods, especially the traditional Japanese tempura. Its thin viscosity also gives it a lower pick-up and thus allows for a lower fat content in fried products. Unrefined, it is an excellent source of the tocotrienol form of vitamin E a powerful antioxidant.
Rice flour and various forms of modified rice starch have become go-to ingredients for product developers crafting gluten-free and non-GMO products. In sauces rice starch can be used at levels up to 10% to control texture and smoothness, as well as to enhance flavor. For example, drum drying fish sauce with rice flour allows the rice to act as a carrier and creates an umami powder with unmatched flavor-enhancing capacity.