Rice, the Gluten-Free Grain Alternative
by Brittany Langdon
Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease, is four times more common now than 60 years ago and affects about one in 100 people. Celiac disease damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. Essentially the body is attacking itself every time a person with celiac consumes gluten.
What is gluten? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the finger-like villi of the small intestine. Left untreated, people with celiac disease can develop further complications such as other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and cancer. According to Mayo Clinic studies, undiagnosed celiac disease can quadruple the risk of death. Mayo researchers are working to discover the causes and improve diagnosis. Mayo Clinic research suggests the disease is becoming a major public health issue. Many find a wonderful gluten-free alternative in rice.
In the United States, rice is mainly grown in California, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Louisiana. The United States rice-milling industry is estimated at $6.3 billion in value, supports more than 38,000 jobs, and has nearly $11 billion in increased output. Rice in the United States is no doubt an important economic factor.
But what many people don’t know is the nutritional value of U.S.-grown rice. In my home state of Arkansas, rice contains only a trace of fat and has no trans-fat or saturated fat. United States-grown rice is also nutrient-dense and contains over 15 vitamins and minerals, including folic acid, other B-vitamins, iron, and zinc, and is also sodium, cholesterol, and of course gluten-free. Many Americans now prefer to buy and eat locally, and for the U.S. rice industry that’s a good thing. Instead of buying rice from other countries, we can buy superior rice that is locally grown. Having someone in your family that is gluten-intolerant can be challenging not just for that person but also for the cook in the family. For my family, it is reality. My mom, the primary meal preparer of our household, was diagnosed with gluten-intolerance a couple of years ago. It caused a huge shift in what foods she consumed and ultimately what foods she prepared for the rest of the family.
Want to know what gluten is in? Well, just about everything. Here is a short list:
• Deli meat
• Pasta/Bread/Flour Tortillas
• Cookies/ Cakes
• Muffins/ Pastries
• Broth in soups and bouillon cubes
• Seasoned chips and seasoned snack food
• Soy sauce
• Seasoned rice and pasta mixes
The list could be much longer, but I want to focus on a safe and healthy, gluten-free alternative—rice. My family purchases about 85% of our food from local farmers or grow it ourselves. We have grown rice in containers, but with meager success. So we leave the rice production to our neighbors in Eastern Arkansas. The rice grown in our home state of Arkansas fits our lifestyle. We know that farms here in the United States are more regulated and safer than their overseas counterparts. “Local” rice, grown in our home state, is a more environmentally-friendly food, means less travel, and also requires less fuel for transport of our food. The state of Arkansas grows about 48% of all U.S. rice, more than any other state.
Our family still enjoys “home-style” cooking with organically-grown meats from our own farm paired with organic long-grain rice. The availability of local rice has helped us adjust to a new way of eating, both at home and when eating out. Now many restaurant menus are even offering “Gluten-Free Options,” most of which contain rice.
Already a staple in the pantry, rice is becoming ever more important. Other grain alternatives, such as quinoa, fill that gap, but they are not harvested locally for U.S. consumers, and the over-harvesting of quinoa has created a great hardship on the farmers who grow it and depleted the land on which it is grown. For our family, rice was the economically- and environmentally-friendly, sustainable grain we were searching for. The culinary possibilities for rice are endless, as are the varieties. There are many varieties of rice including aromatic, organic, long-grain, and brown. Oh, and the many products! Our family purchases rice noodles, rice bread, rice tortillas, rice crackers, rich chips, puffed-rice cereals, and the list goes on! This shows the versatility of rice and offers so many options for the home cook and for professional chefs as well.
Rice is the staple food of over half of the world’s population. It is the predominant dietary energy source for 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific, 9 countries in North and South America, and 8 countries in Africa. Rice provides 20% of the world’s dietary energy supply. Throughout history, rice has been one of man’s most crucial, life-sustaining foods. Today, it provides nourishment for two-thirds of the world’s population. And with the growing number of people who suffer with celiac disease or who are gluten-intolerant, rice is becoming an even larger, even more important part of the modern diet. Rice—it’s feeding the world and making a world of difference for my family.