Consumers soon to be served with nutrient-rich rice choices

27 May

Stumbled upon this article by a former officemate, Rowena Galang-Bumanlag, a bubbly, sassy gal, and, well, a journalism awardee. She is the Information Officer of the Philippine Carabao Center National Headquarters and Gene Pool in Nueva Ecija and is currently taking up her Masters in Communication at the Ateneo de Manila. This article made me reconsider my rice preference. Just in time to save me from my deteriorating weight! Read on.



Consumers soon to be served with nutrient-rich rice choices

By Rowena Galang-Bumanlag / 09178327275


Janice Nilo-Recometa, 32, a mother of one and an overseas Filipino worker in the United Arab Emirates, lives with her family abroad.

At mealtime, she serves them with a steaming bowl of perfect white rice even if there is an abundance of international food choices.

Each month’s payday, her grocery basket is filled with two 5-kilogram packs of Jasmine rice that she buys at the nearest grocery store at 5 dirhams or 60 pesos per kilo.

Jasmine rice is a favorite choice among rice lovers particularly in Asia because it is tender, exudes sweet scent, and is mild in flavor when cooked.

Janice is aware of the healthier benefits of the more widely promoted brown rice but she said it has a certain texture in the mouth that just doesn’t quite satisfy her family’s discriminating taste.

Theirs is a typical Filipino family whose palate is cultured to eat polished rice.

Most rice consumers like Janice and her family still favor white rice as the more palatable and fashionable staple, choosing it over the healthier, unpolished, and half-milled rice varieties.

This preference is even more predominant among upscale consumers.

Scientists have a take on this.

Polished rice is devoid of essential nutrients

Research shows that polished rice grains lack nutrients that are present in the outer (bran) and inner (germ) layers, which are ripped off in the refining process.

Among the nutrients that are taken away along with the bran layers during milling include magnesium, manganese, zinc, and iron.

The loss of these micronutrients, particularly zinc and iron, has become a global concern especially in poor nations suffering from zinc and iron deficiency.

Both iron and zinc are essential elements for human health to complete bodily functions and highly complex processes that are indispensable for survival such as production of red blood cells and transportation of oxygen throughout the body. 

According to the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), micronutrient deficiency is widespread in countries where rice is the staple food.

Regarded as the most pervasive form of malnutrition and a leading cause of anemia, iron deficiency has affected the health of millions of women and children in particular.

The World Health Organization puts the figure at a staggering 2 billion people or over 30 percent of the world’s population.

One important item in IRRI’s research agenda is to address this global concern.

IRRI develops healthier rice with more nutrients to significantly contribute to worldwide interventions that aim to reduce micronutrient deficiencies and improve the nutrition of rice consumers.

This agenda is realized through biofortification.

Biofortified rice is nutrient-rich rice

Biofortification can help poorer groups in society gain access to nutritious foods, which they would otherwise not be able to purchase because of lack of resources.

IRRI’s rice breeding research usually uses traditional or conventional methods, but increasing the iron content of rice is not achievable using these techniques.

Dr. Jessica Rey of the Plant Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology Division (PBGBD) of IRRI said that conventional breeding methods were not successful because there are no donor rice germplasm with exceptionally higher levels of iron.

Genetic modification, thus, becomes the more applicable method, she said.

Using biotechnology as a tool, the rice is genetically modified (GM) to carry a gene or genes that exhibit the desired traits, in this case iron, into its genetic makeup, explained Dr. Rey.

The same method, she said, has an added benefit of enhancing the zinc content of the rice grain.

“We encourage the rice plant to absorb more minerals from the soil, to take them all up and distribute them evenly to the plant with a concentration of more minerals into the grain so that even after milling, the minerals are retained and not wasted away,” Dr. Rey said.

The researchers did this by using a substance called nicotianamine and other iron transporters from rice to enhance the movement of these micronutrients from the plant roots to the grains.

Dr. Rey also explained that they also use ferritin, an iron storage protein found in soybean and rice, to boost the rice endosperm’s capacity to store iron.

Through genetic modification, IRRI has successfully developed rice with additional 30 percent of the estimated average requirement for iron compared to the non-genetically modified line.

This improvement was achieved in their 2012 field trials.

Dr. Rey said their research team is still working on further increasing the iron levels in the grain, particularly in the endosperm (the part of the grain that is retained after polishing), to above 13 parts per million, which is the nutritionists’ required level to make a significant impact in reducing iron deficiency.

The exciting thing about biofortification, the team said, is that once the preferred gene is in the plant, it remains there forever—a glaring advantage of biofortification over mechanical or commercial fortification.

In mechanical fortification, Dr. Rey said, the desired nutrient needs to be added onto the grain each time the rice is processed.

This is why biofortification is a more sustainable strategy, she added.

Biofortified rice on the way

However, consumers still have to wait a few more years before iron- and zinc-rich rice reach their tables.

IRRI’s research on iron-rich rice variety started in 2009. Zinc-rich rice, which they started research on way before iron fortification, is already available in Bangladesh.

Dr. Rey said that they are still in the research phase and that there are national and international biosafety standards that IRRI still need to strictly comply with as the rice varieties go through the breeding process.  

Prior to the public release of any GM rice variety, she said, IRRI has to conduct advanced bioavailability studies to verify its effectiveness in reducing iron or zinc deficiency.

Such studies will measure how much iron or zinc in the rice is bioavailable to humans or is actually absorbed and used in the human body. This will allow researchers to measure how well the rice can reduce iron or zinc deficiency.


Biotechnology for food sustainability

In the Philippines, strategies to harness biotechnology in crops are advanced by the government through the Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Program.

The mission statement of the program is to “utilize the tools of biotechnology as an alternative means to improving the productivity of local agriculture towards food security and sustainable development.”

Dr. Antonio Alfonso, coordinator of the DA Biotechnology Program and director of the Crop Biotechnology Center of the Philippine Rice Research Institute, said that the DA Biotech Program gives support to programs such as food biofortification through field tests and performance validation under field conditions.

He said that their focus is on further improving the variety by ensuring that it is disease-resistant and that its agronomic traits are what farmers would highly prefer.

Dr. Alfonso said that what the public should remember about crop biotechnology is this: “genetic modification is a tool to produce sufficient, safe, and nutritious food amidst production constraints and changing climatic patterns that have direct adverse impact in agriculture.”

In fact, he said, GM crops are the most studied products before they are allowed for commercial release. This means that breeding processes strictly comply with biosafety regulations, he explained.

Scientific interventions such as the development of healthier rice varieties, he said, are benefits of technology that the public sector can take advantage of.

Dr. Alfonso said that with the availability of iron- and zinc-rich rice varieties in the market, rice consumers, such as Janice’s family, can have healthier rice options and they can then make informed choices for the benefit of their families and the community.

Of course, it is still up to the consumers to decide because rice is both nutrition and culture, Dr. Alfonso said.

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