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Human Face
What color is your rice?

By Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:50:00 04/16/2008

Filed Under: Food, Agriculture, rice problem

White or brown or red in the time of rice crisis?

Make mine violet. This is the rice I?ve been eating for some time now. I wish I could call it wild. It?s an indigenous Philippine variety that is organically grown in Cagayan province by farmers affiliated with the Foundation for the Care of Creation. It?s cheaper and more nutritious than the blah commercial white polished (P33 to P35 per kilogram) that?s grown with chemical pesticides and stripped of the nutritious outer fibrous layer.

This violet rice (this is not the glutinous type used for desserts) is nutritious, delicious and costs only P30 per kilo for now. But it?s in short supply because, I understand, it?s not all that cheap to grow and transport. And the locals, I am told, don?t really go for it.

This great variety ought to be preserved and if there is a demand for it, there might be more next harvest time. The so-called fair-trade marketing groups should get interested and partner with the farmers who have good, safe, nutritious rice to sell.

I still caught that era when brown, unpolished rice was deemed inferior?because cheaper?by many and very white rice was considered the staple of the haves. Well, a few decades later, things went the other way. Brown unpolished became the choice of the discriminating and diet-conscious. It was more expensive and hard to find. Dark-colored was in, like dark brown unrefined muscovado sugar as against bleached refined sugar that has been stripped of all its ?impurities? and the rest of its goodness. Fiber was in and was brought back into breads.

I read somewhere that vitamin B1-rich brown or whole grain rice has a shorter shelf life because the germ in whole grain rice spoils fast. And so in the 1800s the Germans invented a milling machine that stripped the grain of its bran and germ. White rice came to be.

The European colonizers in Asia went for the white instead of the cheap brown unpolished of the poor natives. White was the food of the whites. And what did they get? Beriberi. At first they blamed it on a bacterium. It was actually Vitamin B1 (or thiamin) deficiency.

In the late 1800s, the Dutch colonizers in Indonesia suffered a beriberi epidemic. (The Americans in the Philippines also had beriberi woes.) The story goes that Dr. Christian Eijkmann, who ran a clinic in the jungles of Java, kept a flock of chickens that were fed brown rice. But when chicken feed went low, they had to be fed white rice. The chickens began to show symptoms similar to the beriberi patients.

By some enlightenment, someone made a connection and conclusion. The chickens got back their brown rice and got well. Eijkmann concluded that beriberi must have been caused by a vitamin deficiency and not by a bacterium, but the doctor was laughed out of his clinic and sent home.

In 1911, Polish researcher Casimir Funk, working in London, was able to isolate a substance from rice bran which cured beriberi in pigeon. And the rest is history.

Tikitiki, an extract to cure beriberi, is from rice bran. It reversed infant mortality in the Philippines in the early 1900s.

Beriberi symptoms are mostly neurological and include fatigue, irritation, poor memory, sleep disturbances, abdominal discomfort, nerve problems like burning sensations and cramps, swelling and fluid retention. (My thesis in college was on under-nutrition and the nervous system!) Beriberi can lead to heart failure.

So we should be eating unpolished rice?brown, red, violet, whatever. Get your Vitamin B1 from whole-grain rice. And here?s something disturbing from astute marketers. The rice that?s been milled to pure whiteness is marketed as something to be coveted while the bran that has been removed is marketed separately for the health buffs as health products or made into vitamin pills.

Whoa! Just go whole-grain.

Back to beriberi. ?Beriberi, White Rice, and Vitamin B: A Disease, a Cause and a Cure,? a book by Kenneth John Carpenter, is about the history and treatment of beriberi. Once considered a mysterious disease, beriberi afflicted many in the occupying armed forces in Asia and in prisons. ?Beriberi is a story of contested knowledge and erratic scientific pathways. It offers a fascinating chronicle of the development of scientific thought, a history that encompasses public health, science, race, expanding empires, war, and technology.?

The Philippines and rice figure in this book.

We have a lot to learn from this rice crisis. Not just about the causes?wanton land conversion, wrong priorities, overpopulation, disasters, multinationals that play god, etc.?but also about how we have treated this great staple. Now its giving us food for thought.

I am doing a story on a fair-trade NGO that is helping small farmers with healthy produce (rice among them) through product development, packaging and marketing in the mainstream. (This is for the regular pages.)

Hanging in my kitchen for many years now is a faded mounted poster of ?A Recipe for Feeding the World? (from Australian Catholic Relief).


? People?s need for good food

? Land for people, not profit

? Credit for small landholders

? Fair commodity prices

? Fair wages

? Appropriate technology

? Care for the environment


? Stir well till all problems are dissolved.

? Keep ingredients free from war, corruption and agribusiness or the mixture will curdle.

? Feed at least five billion. (That should now be six billion.)

Send feedback to cerespd@info.com.ph. Starting next week my email address will be cerespd@gmail.com.

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