Examining the food on your plate
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Examining the food on your plate

Being a Thai staple, awareness is growing of the importance of consuming fresh, unprocessed forms of rice

Examining the food on your plate
Food-safety research confirms that Thai rice is safe to consume as a staple food. (Photos courtesy of CLP Living)

From a young age, Thais are taught to appreciate every grain of rice on their plate. Rice represents the dedication of hard-working farmers; it is also the sacred symbol of Thailand's culinary boom.

According to a 2017 food safety report by the Department of Medical Sciences under the Ministry of Public Health, average daily rice consumption among Thais is 376g per person, or approximately 137kg of yearly consumption per capita. Rice is always included in our meals, three times a day. Unquestionably, rice is quintessential to our life.

As diners, Thais believe that they are blessed with an advantage when it comes to the consumption of rice due to the tremendous diversity (more than 10,000 indigenous strains are grown across the country) of rice and the immense volume of harvest -- approximately 30 million tonnes per year.

Meanwhile, rice manufacturing has also been revolutionised recently to provide even more value-added options to consumers. On the shelves of supermarkets today, you may find various colours of rice from purple to reddish-brown and even pastel-blue. However, plain white rice and jasmine rice are still the most popular options and enjoy a 90% share in the local retail market.

Interestingly, despite how familiar and comfortable Thais are with rice, we are not urged to explore what is in the rice. Instead, we jump into the warm plate of rice before us without questioning whether the gorgeous white paddy grains are as fresh and pure as they look.

The recent introduction of a mini rice polisher marketed as an option to provide more dietary freedom to consumers has raised these questions.

The portable machine, designed for household use, was developed by a Thai-owned company, CLP Living. It aims to encourage diners to eat rice in its freshest, unprocessed form in order to extract the most nutritious value.

The machine allows consumers to polish small batches of rice to their preferred taste. It also helps reduce the loss of nutrients, which usually occurs in mass-marketed white rice since the bran layer and cereal germ are removed.

Similar to other fresh agricultural produce, rice by nature is perishable.

Thus, it is common for rice manufacturers and wholesalers to use sterilisation technology and chemical inputs to prevent deterioration and prolong storage life.

The mini rice polisher designed to target health conscious consumers.

The process might involve parboiling, heat-drying, coating and fumigation -- the latter is done to protect stored grains from rice mites by using gaseous insecticides known as fumigants.

So does that mean the rice we eat every day is contaminated? Is it safe to continue eating mass-marketed rice or is there a way to safely enjoy our familiar favourite?

According to public health officials, consumers need not worry because Thai rice has been scientifically proven to be safe to eat.

"Being our dietary staple and national commodity, rice is under the close surveillance of many organisations in terms of food safety," said Weeraya Karnpanit, a lecturer at the Institute of Nutrition, Mahidol University.

"If you talk about food contamination regarding rice, the three main areas that the surveillance focuses on is pesticides, heavy metals and fumigants," she noted.

Pesticides are generally used during the farming process while heavy metals -- such as cadmium, arsenic and mercury -- may be absorbed by rice crops from contaminated soil, water and fertiliser. Last but not least, fumigants, most commonly methyl bromide, is used in the post-harvest stage before packaging.

Weeraya said that the use of pesticides, as well as other agricultural chemicals, during rice cultivation is regulated and closely monitored by the Department of Agriculture to ensure the safety of both farmers and consumers. "Recent research carried out by several institutions and non-profit organisations showed that pesticide residue in the study cases of Thai rice was undetectable," she said.

Regarding cadmium contamination, Weeraya cited a recent study by the Institute of Nutrition, which examined more than 400 samples of rice from various trading points including rice mills and retail stores across the country. The study found that none of the samples contained cadmium level exceeding the Codex standard.

"For fumigants, which concerns consumers the most, only one sample out of a total of 116 samples was detected to contain bromide. However, the level was very low and harmless."

There are more than 10,000 strains of Thai rice. Each has distinctive culinary characteristics as well as unique nutrients and health benefits. (CLP Living)

Weeraya said that rinsing the rice before cooking helps to remove fumigant residue by 50% while high heat from boiling will further decrease it by another 20%. Furthermore, eating various kinds of rice is another way to ensure that we don't have too much intake of harmful substances.

Moreover, those looking for the utmost chemical-free rice can also bank on organic options.

Salana Organic Village is a social enterprise that supports environmental friendly rice farming. The company also promotes the sale of chemical-free rice from its network of rice farmers spread across the country.

"People should take precautions in what they eat every day," said Vuttipong Chacaratpong, Salana's academic and community network department manager.

"Safe consumption may start by eating different strains of rice seasonally. By doing so, it will help farmers reduce the use of chemicals," he said.

According to him, chemicals such as herbicides, fungicides, growth regulator hormones and fertiliser are used by mainstream rice farmers in order to meet fixed expectations and year-round demand in the market.

"Eating seasonally also allows you to enjoy a diversity of tastes, textures and fragrances of rice. The fragrance, taste and texture vary not just on the strain but also climates and farming locations. For example, jasmine rice grown in the drought, calcium-rich land in the northeastern region will be more fragrant than those grown in the Central Plains.

"While there are more than 10,000 strains of Thai rice, each strain has distinctive culinary characters and offers unique nutrients and health benefits. So eating many varieties of rice may help create a healthier diet and reduce the risk of illness."

To the question of how to tell organic rice from its counterpart, he said: "The natural appearance of chemical-free rice is very different from chemically-treated rice.

"Organic paddy grains are matte and not translucent meaning they are more sensitive to moisture. Meanwhile, the bran and germ that cover the grains also attract mites, so the rice will degenerate much quicker if it not stored in the fridge or vacuum-packed compared to mass-manufactured rice.

"Eating safely also means buying food from sources you trust. If you don't know who to trust, at least eat from various producers," Vuttipong noted.

Meanwhile, Weeraya from the Institute of Nutrition said: "Thai rice, organic or not, is a safe staple food as records have constantly shown.

"We have national organisations, particularly the Department of Medical Sciences and Department of Agriculture, which operates independently of each other, to keep a close observation on rice safety and conduct random tests regularly. Thai rice is also produced under the internationally recognised Codex standards, so diners can be assured that it is very safe to eat Thai rice."

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