White, Red, Black or Wild – Which Kind of Rice is Your Favorite
Shoppers Warm Up to Premium-Priced Rice; Authentic Basmati
Humble rice is becoming sophisticated fare in American homes.
More shoppers are buying up pricey, aromatic rice varieties such as imported basmati and jasmine, blends of unusual red and black grains, and fine-tuning their rice-cooking technique. Until recently, Americans ate the revered staple grain as an afterthought, seeing it as an inexpensive carbohydrate or a way to break the potato monotony.
The grain, a $2.2 billion U.S. business, is getting its due as shoppers flock to ethnic foods that feel authentic and search for interesting grains that boast health benefits like fiber, protein or other nutrients.
While rice sales overall are growing—the majority white long-grain rice—sales of specialty rice including basmati, red and blends are rising much faster.
“I had no idea these rices existed,” says 58-year-old Christina Ragsdale, of the dark red, black and blends of rice appearing more frequently at her local supermarket.
The Sacramento, Calif., resident says she is now eating more rice because there is a wider variety of textures and flavors to choose from. “If you only eat the white stuff it’s always the same,” says Ms. Ragsdale, who works in communications for her local city government.
The shift in habits has rice sellers and retailers salivating. Amira Nature Foods, one of the largest sellers of Indian-grown basmati globally, hopes to expand its now limited sales in the U.S., says Karan A. Chanana, chairman and chief executive of the Dubai-based company.
The company recently hired advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and put its rice in eye-catching metallic gold packaging. It hopes to signal to mainstream shoppers that its basmati, grown at the foothills of the Himalayas, is precious because of its origins and superior to the less flavorful white long-grain rice most American shoppers grew up with, says Mr. Chanana.
Known for selling fast-cooking, mostly white rice, Uncle Ben’s in recent years has started selling more jasmine, basmati and brown varieties, says a spokesman for Mars Inc., which owns the company, the largest rice brand in the U.S.
Big demographic and culinary trends affecting the food industry have put rice in a sweet spot. Asians and Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the U.S., and both are sophisticated rice-eating cultures. Indian, Mexican, Thai and other cuisines, often rice-based, have become a part of mainstream eating, especially among younger Americans.
And rice is naturally gluten-free, as shoppers continue to flock to foods free of the protein found in wheat.
Darker rice has more fiber than white rice. That is because the bran, the outer layer on each grain, hasn’t been polished off to reveal the starchy white interior. Some varieties, such as wild rice, also have more protein than lighter-colored grains.
Lundberg brand wild rice has 6 grams of protein per serving, while its short-grain brown rice has 3 grams per serving. A medium sized potato has about 4.3 grams of protein.
Grains of all sorts, including new rice varieties, are seen as increasingly healthy by shoppers, says Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Kroger Co., the largest traditional grocery company in the U.S. The grocer is giving more space on shelves to new, pricier grains, including basmati, Italian Arborio and Thai jasmine rice, along with quinoa, chia and freekeh, a roasted wheat, he says.
“Basically take your birdseed container and empty it out,” quips Todd Kluger, vice president of sales and marketing for Lundberg Family Farms, a mostly organic rice seller based in Richvale, Calif.
Sales of the company’s organic heirloom rice, dark red and black rice and grain blends are rising fast. Shoppers are starting to understand that different rice has different flavors or nutritional benefits, a turning point for American rice eating, says Mr. Kluger.
U.S. sales of basmati and jasmine, known as aromatic rice for their nutty, floral aroma and flavor when cooked, hit $283 million over the 52 weeks ended Aug. 30, up 63% over the past four years, according to Nielsen data provided by Riviana Foods Inc., the largest seller of rice in the U.S. Sales of rice overall grew about 7.4% over the same period. Aromatic rice and blends are sold for sometimes twice as much as white, long-grain rice.
Still, rice cooking continues to be an intimidating prospect for the uninitiated.
As a result, companies have sold quick-cook and boil-in-a bag varieties to cut lengthy cook times and tricky liquid-to-rice ratios. “We have solved a problem for millions of people who can’t cook rice correctly,” says Paul Galvani, senior vice president of marketing for Riviana, which sells several brands including Minute Rice, Mahatma and Success Rice. The company is owned by Madrid-based Ebro Foods SA.
Fast-cooking varieties are precooked, then dehydrated, before they are packaged so the final phase of cooking can happen in minutes.
Rice cookers can help, say rice companies. The small, often inexpensive appliances can be turned on then left alone because they stop cooking automatically when water is absorbed, but they keep rice warm. The feature forgives small miscalculations in the liquid-to-rice ratio.
RiceSelect, a Houston-based company owned by RiceTec Inc., is giving away 5,000 rice cookers as part of a social media and blogger campaign aimed at people 35 and under who might be learning how to cook, says Louis Fernandez, director of marketing for the company. RiceSelect sells rice blends and U.S.-grown basmati, Arborio and jasmine in clear plastic tubs.
In the U.S., rice is grown primarily in six states in the mid-south and Northern California, all of which accounts for less than 2% of global rice production, according to the Agriculture Department. Most rice is produced in Asia and India.
At West Coast Costco stores, where Indian rice seller Amira now sells 10- and 20-pound bags of basmati, rice cookers are often set up in aisles to offer samples, says Mr. Chanana, the chief executive.
The rice is served plain so shoppers “can check the real pure flavor,” he says.
The best basmati is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and has a specific floral, nutty flavor as a result, says Mr. Chanana, who is in the fourth generation of his family to run the company. U.S. growers say their aromatic rice is also high quality, but it can have a different texture and flavor.
Amira buys its basmati from about 200,000 small farmers in India, says Mr. Chanana. The brand’s rice and other basmati are often aged for a year or longer in burlap bags after harvest to bring out the rice’s aromatic flavor. Then the grain’s husk is removed.
White rice is polished to remove bran, giving the end product a pearly white color, says Mr. Chanana. A high-quality basmati elongates when cooked and has uniform color and size, he says.
Source: The Wall Street Journal
By Sarah Nassauer