Written by Andrei B Lanuza
Most westerners look at rice simply as a side dish. But Asians, like Filipinos, view rice as the center of the meal around which other foods such as meat and vegetables gravitate. This explains why the typical diet of Asians has less saturated fats that are usually found in meat-based diets.
Rice is nutritious, but…
Is rice by itself nutritious? Many nutritionists believe so. Rice is rich in complex carbohydrates and fiber, and is an excellent source of manganese, selenium, magnesium, and various B vitamins. Although when nutritionists talk about rice being a “healthy food”, they refer to brown rice (rice with the bran and germ intact) and not white, polished rice, which is most commonly bought and consumed by Filipinos.
Removing the bran and germ of rice increases its palatability and shelf-life but at the cost of losing most of its nutritional value.
Because most Filipinos are accustomed to eating white rice, additional nutrients are usually compensated by consuming other foods like meat, vegetables, or fruits during regular meals. Unfortunately, not all Filipinos have the financial means to diversify their diets. And with rice being cheap and easily accessible, most households will always give priority and a bigger budget to purchasing rice before even considering other food items.
So how can we get back some of the nutrients lost during the polishing of rice or any processed food for that matter, particularly if your diet lacks diversity? The answer lies in the fortification or enrichment of rice and other processed foods.
Physical fortification of rice
The general idea behind fortification is to add nutrients into food that lacks the desired quantity of vitamins and minerals.
To improve the nutrient status of Filipinos and to increase the nutritional value of rice, the government, through the National Food Authority, has initiated the commercial fortification of rice with iron to provide consumers, particularly pregnant and breast-feeding women, with the needed mineral to fight anemia. The great news is that studies have shown that iron-fortified rice is as effective as administering iron supplements to people suffering from anemia.
Ironically, a study conducted and published by the USAID in 2008 stated that the nature of our rice milling industry, which is largely decentralized, creates logistical issues concerning delivery and supervision of the rice fortification program. The study also cited that the weakness of our rice fortification program may be the lack of capacity and support infrastructure to ensure a mandatory program.
To help make fortified rice viable, accessible, and sustainable, PhilRice has been studying the biofortification of rice.
Biofortification can be accomplished through both conventional breeding and genetic manipulation (i.e. alter genetic make-up of rice to be able to naturally produce certain nutrients in sufficient quantities). This article focuses on the latter.
Unlike commercial fortification, biofortification does not involve any extra procedure in the processing of white rice, like mixing binders or other substances that will attach the desired nutrient before rice is retailed.
For example, Golden Rice is genetically modified to naturally produce beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, within its grains. Golden rice is currently being tested by PhilRice as a potential resource against prevailing local incidences of vitamin A deficiency. If proven safe and efficacious, it will one day be available to all farmers at no extra cost without having them change their farming practices.
Another biofortified rice being developed by PhilRice called 3-in-1 rice will also contain beta carotene. The “3” doesn’t mean it will have three different nutrients. The rice variety is simply loaded with two more features that would benefit farmers—rice tungro disease and bacterial leaf blight resistance.” The 3-in-1 variety will be the first of its kind as it will contain three important traits never before found at the same time in a rice variety”, states PhilRice breeder Dr. Antonio Alfonso.
Likewise, a dissertation made by PhilRice researcher Riza Abilgos-Ramos for her doctorate degree explores the potentials of folate-enriched rice through biofortification. Folates, also known as folic acid, are forms of water-soluble vitamin B9 which is essential for proper bodily functions and are usually found naturally in food such as egg yolk and some leafy vegetables.
Currently white rice is only being fortified with one key nutrient at a time. The real challenge of fortification some might argue is that of limited bioavailability. This occurs when the body is unable to absorb the added nutrient from fortified food due to missing other nutrients needed to effectively utilize the isolated nutrient added during fortification.
Another challenge, particularly to physically fortifying rice, is that the added nutrients may be lost due to the preparations (i.e. storage, cooking, washing) it undergoes before consumption especially if the method for binding the added nutrients to rice is not done properly.
Although fortifying rice may not be the “end all, be all” of better nutrition, it is a right step forward. After all, we can’t live on rice alone and a diversified and balanced diet of nutritious food is still the best approach to keeping ourselves healthy.