Playing Nice with Rice
If you are what you eat, does that also mean your behaviors reflect how your food is grown? Researchers posit a “rice theory" that the collaboration required to grow rice tend to foster cultures that are more cooperative and interconnected.
Read on to learn more about what else is hidden in your bowl of rice!
The Current Pickle
In the last few years, you may have heard rumblings of the Pickle of all Pickles: “How (on Earth) are we going to feed the 9 billion people that will be on Earth in 2050?” Experts, teams, and researchers weigh in with one simple, kernel-sized answer: rice. Currently rice:
- provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed worldwide by humans,
- is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world's human population, especially in Asia, and
- is the agricultural commodity with the third-highest worldwide production after sugarcane and maize.
Rice permeates our cultures and our planet because it can! It can be grown in all kinds of conditions, and grows from seed in a mere three months. Rice as we know it today began as a type of wild rice that became domesticated some 8,200-13,500 years ago in China and made its way to America through European colonization. Our American wild rice is in the same genetic tribe (can’t make this stuff up) as its Asian family, just a more distant cousin!
Six US states currently grow 100 varieties of that Asian rice:, accounting for 12% of the world rice trade. They are Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas, with Wisconsin vying for a place in the lineup. Rice typically grows by the flooding-of-the-field technique, though the less water-reliant upland technique is also used. Ultimately, finding varieties of rice that don’t rely so much on water, and are good for the soil (like a possible perennial variety) is what will help us answer that Pickle of all Pickles!
But there is one other pickle about that big ol’ Pickle: consider that rice paddies (the flooded fields) are the largest human source of methane (methane is less prevalent in the atmosphere than the main man-made greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), but is more potent because it traps 28 times more heat). Gah! We’ll need to up our innovation to counter those emissions!
P.S. Shoutout to those rice fields that are a sustainable place for symbiotic relationships, like giving ducks a splash house and raising Louisiana crawfish! Ahhhhhh, we’re singing kumbaya over here in appreciation for such harmonious environments. 🎶
What’s the Dillio with Color and Size?
If you want to use rice for something other than drying out your phone, you may suffer from decision paralysis. You've probably come across varieties like:
- The rare unicorn of Carolina Gold (which saw its heyday prior to the Great Depression, and now has made a comeback with a cult following)
- The exquisite heirloom black rice once cultivated for Chinese emperors
- A conventional & fortified white rice (white rice is required to be fortified by the FDA)
Despite all the choice, our best advice on rice? Pick brown rice or another whole grain variety, for a few reasons:
- White rice is brown rice with the nutritious outside removed: Yup, a few nutrient-packed layers are removed from brown rice through refining, milling, and polishing to make white rice. If you go for white rice, you’re missing out on minerals and nutrients with scads of health benefits!
- Lowered risk of type 2 diabetes: Yup, researchers have now proven that replacing white rice with brown rice results in at 16% decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. 🎉
- Brown rice is the whole grain. You are winning when you eat whole grains (See also: The Wheat Pickle). Avoid rice that is labeled “refined” or “fortified” or "enriched"—this means nutrients have been added back in after the refining process! (Ahem, waste of time. Fortification is riddled with controversy: not all nutrients can be added back; not all nutrients may be as bioavailable as the original source, etc.)
We know that white rice cooks up in a jiffy, which makes it appealing. If you don’t have time to watch that rice pot never boil, make a bunch and stash in the freezer for later. No biggie!! And freezing rice before frying makes for a finer fried rice. (Try saying that 4x fast 😂 )
We get that arsenic angst may be preventing you from jumping on the brown rice train (arsenic naturally occurs in the earth, but also gets there from pesticides; both types accumulate in the bran of rice). So eat your rice in moderation: make brown rice (or other whole grain varieties) just one of the many types of whole grains you gobble! You might also find calm in consuming brown basmati from CA, India, or Pakistan, which Consumer Reports found to have the least amounts of inorganic arsenic.
Size and texture post-cooking is why you might notice a recipe calling very specifically for short-, medium-, or long-grain rice. In short, short-grain rice = sticky and moist (like risotto); long-grain rice = loose and fluffy (like basmati).
A few of our Picks for global-inspired recipes that take advantage of those different lengths? A brown Mexican rice, a Japanese garlic fried rice, a black rice risotto, and sushi rice that works best in a rice cooker.
The Hot Pickle
Rice water is hot right now, used for strengthening hair, cooling off inflamed skin, or as a daily toner. We’re gonna suggest that while you let your rice water face mask soak in, peruse the amazingly cultivated rice farm art in China: masterful artist-farmers have used technology to figure out exactly what varieties to plant and when to plant them to in order to create beautiful rice art in the field!
And when you’re officially ready to take the plunge into placing a few more non-white rice varieties in your pantry (including eventually a purple rice that’s been modified to fight cancer!), grab the great grains of these rice paddies:
- Lundberg Family Farms: third and fourth generation Lundbergs run this show. Brilliant. (Read more about their arsenic testing—hint: their arsenic is way lower than most!)
- Koda Farms: Keisaburo Koda, who started the farm, was born in 1882. His dad was a samurai. They are finicky about seeds.
- Anson Mills: Working on more than just rice, they’re hoping to restart the Carolina Rice Kitchen—a local and sustainable cuisine that arose in the 19th century South that was “supported by full animal husbandry, and a farming system based upon sustainable rice horticulture.” 👆 Remember that mention of food and culture? Bring it.