Written by Charisma Love B Gado


In our pre-conquest world, rice was harvested with minimum disturbance so as not to scare away or stir the wrath of the spirits that reside in the staple’s stalks and grains. This tradition and belief still live today among the Bontoks in mt. province.

The research of Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. published in 2005 by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies revealed that spirits in the rice, when cooked and ingested, play a life-giving role in reinvigoration. “Rice restores vitality after a potentially life-draining and polluting effect of a death in the family.”

This belief, he said, is consistent with the Japanese who “rejuvenate themselves” by “internalizing the divine power through the consumption of rice-cum-deities, which become part of the human body
and its growth.”

Rice spirits are believed to preserve life and restore vitality. However, recent studies point to the ill effects of eating too much rice; that rice as staple food can destroy the body instead of nourish it.

Tempting the spirits’ anger

Archaeological records reveal that grains didn’t exist until humans domesticated annual grasses, at most 12,000 years ago. In our country, rice was not a staple cereal until the Spaniards introduced the plow. Before our conquest, rice was highly valued and considered as the most esteemed cereal that “even datus with many slaves ate root crops in certain seasons.” About the 19th century, gabi, yam, and millet were replaced by corn, kamote, and rice as staples.

In her book, The Vegetarian Myth published in 2009, Lierre Keith cited how agriculture including grain production had brought negative changes to human existence. Believing that “agriculture – its foods, its civilizations – is the end of the world,” Keith said producing grains had moral and political undertones.

Morally, producing grains degrades the soil. She cited Bill Mollison who said that nature builds top soils at 2-4 t/ha a year, but we remove 40-500 t/ha through tilling. Applying synthetic fertilizers to the soil also destroys biological activities in it. Grains also need water. To grow a ton of rice, we need water from two Olympic-sized swimming pools, compromising the habitat and resources for animals and other plants.

Politically, she claimed that farmers in some countries like Ghana are becoming poorer owing to the importation of rice from developed countries. She said governments in rich countries pay their farmers to grow rice so they can sell rice cheaply to Ghana. She also contended that the resources used in irrigation, enhanced agricultural production, and transporting grains could have been used to nourish humans than to grow grains.

Revenge of the spirits

Keith claimed that there is significant body of evidence which suggests that “cereal grains are less than optimal foods for humans, and that the human genetic make-up and physiology may not be fully adapted to high levels of high cereal grain consumption.” She said that grain-based diet includes too many starches and sugars, overloading the intestines.

She said “there is no such thing as necessary carbohydrate, and that the actual amount of carbohydrates required by humans for health is zero.” However, humans crave for grains because they are essentially sugar with enough opioids (pain relievers that may become habit-forming if used over long periods) that make grains addictive.

Archaeological record also shows that rheumatoid arthritis is prevalent in areas where wheat and corn are consumed as staple foods. Celiac disease or a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food triggers sufferers to be thirty-times more likely to be schizophrenic. Shift to grain consumption also resulted in poorer dental health.

Epidemiologists also reveal that “multiple sclerosis—an auto-immune disease where the body attacks its own nerve sheaths—is most prevalent in cultures where wheat and rye are staple foods.”

Appeasing the spirits

With the claimed drawback of over eating grains, especially rice, should we, mere humans, be convinced of forgetting rice as part of our diet?

Amidst reports on the auto-immune diseases caused by grains, Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome, estimated that only 1% of people cannot recover from food allergies, including celiac diseases. They could fight the allergies by not eating grains for only 1.5 to 2 years, and need not forgo rice consumption forever.

Eating whole grains, or foods that contain all three parts of the grain kernel, also has advantages. These three parts and their benefits include endosperm, which is a source of energy; bran, source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals; and germ, has mostly vitamins and minerals. Brown rice is a whole-grain food.

The analysis conducted by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina showed that consuming an average of 2.5 servings of whole grains each day could significantly lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke. The study involved more than 285,000 participants and was conducted between 1966 and April 2006.

Are we designed to eat grains? Dr. Stephan Guyenet, obesity researcher and neurobiologist, said our body had undergone genetic adaptations to cope with changes brought about by eating grains, which include the polymorphisms in the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) and apolipoprotein B genes.

The ACE and apolipoprotein B genes adaptation may be more relevant as they relate to blood pressure and LDL or bad cholesterol.

“Blood pressure and blood cholesterol are both factors that respond well to low-carbohydrate (and thus low-grain) diets, suggesting that the polymorphisms may be a protective adaptation against the cardiovascular effects of grains,” he explained.

On the other hand, a study based on the dietary ritual of the Muslim holiday Ramadan has found that limiting carbohydrate intake to dinner time “increases feelings of satiety, which could ward off obesity and weight-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.”

Released in November 2012, the study revealed that participants have lower hunger scores, and improved weight, abdominal circumference, body fat, and blood sugar levels compared to their counterparts in the control group.

Spirits may still care

There may be lots of weighing going down in your mind now, and you may be wondering why rice exists if its presence causes confusion when we consider health. Grains were underscored in the Bible mostly during dark times – in Ezekiel’s time during the fall of the house of Israel, seven years of famine in Egypt, and when God sent His Manna to the Israelites during the Exodus.

In our country’s dark times during the Second World War, the elites “experienced hunger and valued every grain of rice, which was deemed to be the only ‘real’ food. Corn and root crops that fed many poor people during periodic and seasonal shortages did not belong to ‘the real’.” They ate cassava flour made into bibingka (cake) with grated corn and castanog (toasted coconut meat).

But then, spirits may not have left the grains. Health advocates were sent to us and recommended that grains must be soaked, rinsed, sprouted, fermented, or sour-leavened to “decrease their amount of toxins, making them more nutritious and digestible.”

Might the rice spirits be crazy?  Our experience with grain consumption, whether destroying or nourishing, confusing or amusing, may give us an answer.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) is a government corporate entity attached to the Department of Agriculture created through Executive Order 1061 on 5 November 1985 (as amended) to help develop high-yielding and cost-reducing technologies so farmers can produce enough rice for all Filipinos.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute