Ingrain healthy diet in a new grain of rice

Patcharee Luenguthai

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Ingrain healthy diet in a new grain of rice

Thailand’s researchers work to dish up healthier rice to the world 

In addition to making genetic improvements to rice varieties to address challenges in crop production and productivity, Thai university researchers and rice research centres under the Rice Department are constantly developing new rice varieties with greater nutrient density and safety. 

With the increasing prevalence of Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs), also known as chronic diseases, both in Thailand and the rest of the world, new rice varieties are being developed for use in the nutraceutical or diet therapy based on scientific evidence of the effects of wholegrain rice on health. Pigmented wholegrain rice, in particular, is a rich source of antioxidants thanks to high concentrations of anthocyanin, flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic compounds.

In Thailand, Riceberry rice has been playing a major role in changing the mindset about rice consumption with interest in wholegrain rice or brown rice continuing to grow. Ten years ago, Prof. Dr Apichart Vanavichit, Director of the Rice Science Centre and Rice Gene Discovery, Faculty of Agriculture at the Kasetsart University Kamphang Saen Campus in Thailand, and his team successfully developed a new variety of rice they called Riceberry by crossing two renowned Thai rice strains, Jao Hom Nin, a Thai non-glutinous purple rice, and Khao Dawk Mali 105 (Thai Hom Mali rice). They aimed to boost the nutritional value, fragrance, and the taste of rice. 

Today, this purple-black Riceberry rice is well known for its distinctive appearance, nutritional value, unique aroma, and numerous health benefits. It is very popular as an organic superfood among vegetarians, vegans, and health-conscious consumers who can choose between the 108 brands of Riceberry rice available on the market.

– Thai Riceberry Rice –

Prof. Dr Apichart later took the research a step further, undertaking further genetic improvements for productivity and nutritional density to reduce the production costs and, as a result, made Riceberry more accessible to lower-income groups.

“We are integrating Riceberry in diet therapy programmes to prevent NCDs and rejuvenate the metabolism. New low glycemic rice varieties have been successfully developed to improve insulin insensitivity and inhibit cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and chronic kidney disease (CKD) in the elderly,” he explained. 

Moreover, the Rice Science Centre of Kasetsart University in partnership with BIOTEC (The National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) has revealed a biotechnology breakthrough in developing a new rice variety with a higher iron content to curb the high rate of iron deficiencies worldwide.

Prof. Dr Apichart stresses that in addition to nutrient density, rice grown for healthy eating must adhere to eco-friendly practices including organic and pesticide-free cultivation and maintain low carbon/water footprints.


New developments in low-GI rice varieties

Another major success of the Rice Science Centre and Rice Gene Discovery, Faculty of Agriculture at the Kasetsart University Kamphang Saen Campus is the development of new rice varieties; namely, Rainbow Rice (Khao Sappasi in Thai), so-called because of its distinctive complex anthocyanin and chlorophyll patterns on the whole leaf area. There are five types of Rainbow rice species: the tall plant with pomegranate pink leaves; the short plant with pomegranate pink leaves; the tall plant with pink leaves covered with green and white stripes; the short plant with pink leaves covered with green and white stripes, and white leaves.

– Rainbow Rice (Khao Sappasi in Thai) –

Prof. Dr Apichart said that the newly developed Rainbow is non-GM (genetically modified) and stems from cross-breeding between two parental varieties: mutant Jao Hom Nin and Kao Kam Nin. The seeds harvested from the experimental field were distributed for a pilot planting project in Chiang Mai province including at the foot of Doi Inthanon, the Agricultural Research Centre under the Royal Project, and Sameong district in August. All five varieties are in the process of being submitted for registration under the new Plant Variety Protection (PVP) Act.

The five Rainbow rice varieties are tailor-made not only for multiple resistance, but also to enhance the levels of micronutrients (zinc and iron) and dietary fibre. The low GI and soft texture are likely to help them gain popularity in the global market, particularly in the Asian region.

Meanwhile, the distinctive characteristics of Rainbow Rice are expected to generate additional income for farmers. The Rainbow Rice ears have high potential as rich sources of antioxidants, dietary fibre, micronutrients, and amino acid. Producing innovative foodstuffs from rice leaves could effectively enhance global food security as well as improve the livelihood of rice farmers, and the attractive colours of the rice ears during the winter months could be a tourist attraction.

Bright prospects for healthy rice

With the rising number of health-conscious consumers and an ageing population worldwide, the Rice Department is encouraging its rice research centres nationwide to develop new rice varieties with more health benefits. In particular, pigmented rice varieties (classified as a niche market) aim to meet the needs of health enthusiasts and those suffering from NCDs.

So far, the Department has certified a range of new wholegrain rice varieties including Hom Mali Daeng rice (Red Hom Mali rice), Hom Nin Rice (Sapphire fragrant rice), Pin Kaset, Thapthim Chumphae Rice (Chumphae pomegranate rice), Mali Nin Surin rice, and Mali Komen Surin. They were joined last year by two certified whole-grain rice varieties, Kor Khor 83 rice (Hom Nin Nong Khai 62) and Met Fai 62 rice (Southern variety).

Kor Khor 43 is an alternative for consumers who should eat low-GI rice but still prefer white rice with a soft texture. Kor Khor 43 came onto the market in 2017, and is now popular among consumers in Thailand and internationally, especially in China. 

The Department of Foreign Trade is also promoting germinated brown rice for mental health. Research by Kasetsart University in collaboration with a Japanese institute has found that germinated brown rice contains 15 times more GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) than ordinary brown rice. It’s also a powerful neurotransmitter boosting the central nervous system’s ability to support good sleep, relax, and reduce stress. It is thought that regular consumption could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and slow the deterioration of eye and brain cells.

The diverse choice of innovative rice products

The combination of the nutritional value, delicious taste, distinctive fragrance of Thai rice, and cutting-edge technology, has led to a selection of food innovations. In addition to ready-to-eat rice, which is a convenient choice for the modern consumer, advances have been made in food science particularly in the development of foods from Thai rice for babies, the elderly and the infirm. 

Rice milk is becoming a new trend among health-conscious consumers, as it is not only packed with nutrients, but also offers nourishment for youthful skin. Cereals and snacks including baked rice crisps, rice crackers, baked rice puffs, rice meringue and seasoned pounded unripe rice appeal to the young generation. 

Thai rice is gaining interest from gluten-intolerant consumers, too, both in Europe and Asia. Gluten is a protein found in certain grains; such as, wheat, rye, barley, and oats, and is an allergen, which causes abnormal symptoms in some consumers.

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Patcharee Luenguthai

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