Rice has always been a nutrition staple, but now consumers are eating more of it than ever—in classic forms, such as long-grain brown rice, and in newer products like rice crackers, pastas, rice-based milk and cheese, which are good options for people with dairy allergies. “We’re seeing continuing growth and interest in whole-grain brown rice,” says Molly Johnson, director of retail trade and special promotions for the USA Rice Federation. “According to the U.S. Rice Domestic Usage Report, brown rice shipments to all domestic market segments increased 13 percent from 2007 to 2008.” And though the price of rice is predicted to double this year due to droughts in India and floods in the Philippines, the popularity of whole-grain rice products is expected to continue. Here are some category trends to navigate with your customers.
Brown takes the crown
Wheat and dairy allergies have changed the product landscape for whole-grain brown rice. “There’s a huge trend in gluten-free foods,” says Kerry Neville, RD, a nutrition consultant in Kirkland, Wash., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Because rice is gluten free, it gives people an option to eat foods they wouldn’t normally be able to eat. Rice is one of those foods that people
Brown-rice pastas, tortillas, crackers, chips, milks, cereals, couscous, flours and cheeses are now available. Most of these products are filled with flavor—although they can be high in sodium—making them appealing to many customers, even those without allergies. The only downside, Neville says, is that people might be limiting their nutrients by substituting rice for other foods.
Neville says 30 grams, or 1 ounce, of brown rice has 0.5 grams of fiber, compared with 3.7 grams in the same amount of whole wheat. And rice milk and cheese, unlike cow’s milk products, are not considered good sources of calcium or vitamin D. Although, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, rice is a good source of B vitamins and some amino acids, “nutritionally, [rice] products are typically not on par with their regular counterparts,” Neville says.
Heirloom brands on the rise
One rice category receiving attention these days is heirloom or heritage rice, such as Forbidden, Chinese black, Wehani and Bhutanese red. “There is a growing knowledge about whole grains that is driving interest in brown rice and different-colored varieties, such as black, red and purple. There’s even a pink rice,” says Todd Kluger, vice president of marketing for Lundberg Family Farms, a natural and organic rice producer in Richvale, Calif. “People are beginning to pay attention to varieties that are not as mainstream.”
Some companies import heirloom rice from Thailand, China and India, but most grow it on U.S. soil, perhaps because importing the rice can drive up the price point. During the 2007-08 milling year, approximately 81 percent of rice consumed in America was domestically grown, according to the U.S. Rice Domestic Usage Report.
Kluger says like brown rice, heirloom varieties are whole-grain, so their full nutritional value is intact. While their specific micronutritional compositions are unknown, the darker types are thought to carry more antioxidants and fiber, Kluger says. “The rule of thumb for any fruit, vegetable, berry or grain, such as rice, is the darker the product, the more antioxidants and trace vitamins and minerals are going to be there.”
Heirloom varieties are just as easy to cook as brown rice, Kluger says, though they may require more water, depending on the kernel thickness. He recommends a rice cooker to prepare most rice.
Precooked rice for convenience
Another rice trend is the ready-to-serve category, which increased in sales by 15 percent from 2008 to 2009, says Paul Galvani, vice president of marketing for Riviana Foods, a Houston-based rice processor and distributor. “There’s been a continued shift toward convenience products, and more families are eating at home due to the recession.”
Kluger says the precooked rice trend follows other world markets. “Rice in the U.S. is still a growing trend, so we are able to look to Asia and India and Italy for inspiration, where they eat more rice per capita than we do,” he says. Most precooked rice comes in a bowl or pouch and is sealed in a shelf-stable, airtight container.