If the planet's average temperature hits 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, it has been claimed that half of the Mekong delta, the world's biggest rice exporter, would be underwater.
As the climate crisis is calling into question rice’s future, the EU’s European Rice project is raising awareness of rice grown in Europe including promoting the sustainability benefits.
With rice grown on 416,000 hectares in Europe, amounting to 2.8 million tonnes of rice per year, the EU is a net exporter for Japonica rice, which represents around 75% of EU rice production, with the rest made up of Indica rice.
European Rice stresses that rice from Europe provides major food security for the continent, and that it is grown in a way that respects and even benefits the environment and local eco-systems.
With rice sitting as the base to the Mediterranean diet, European Rice stresses it is important that this ingredient is cultivated to last for generations to come.
New rice cooking technology
One innovative European company leveraging the grain is Spain’s Rice In Action. It has unveiled rice products for food service, brands and retailers developed using proprietary technology which both lowers rice’s glycaemic index and its cooking time, thus providing health, sustainability and prroductivity benefits. The company claims its rice can offer food service clients a 12x increase in productivity, whilst reducing energy costs 60x.
“Rice is a central icon of Spanish gastronomy,” Christophe Pais, Co-Founder of the Madrid-based start-up, told FoodNavigator.
“It is a delicious dish that represents the pleasure of good cooking and enjoyment, but it requires culinary skills and time to prepare it. We started specialising in rice 11 years ago, seeking to scale up its cooking in a consistent way. Four years ago we created a digital gas cooker with robots and algorithms, which controlled the fire and gave voice instructions to chefs, but a hardware and software-based solution was not practical.
“We started a research from scratch, using all the knowledge we had acquired over the years, and came up with a solution radically different from anything we had known so far. In the state of the art, there is no solution like ours.”
Rice In Action’s rice cooking technology is currently patent pending. “We are able to expand the rice 30% more than with traditional cooking, without it being gelatinised in full,” Pais elaborated. “We cold infuse the rice with broths, flavours and nutrients in a precise way. In this manner, the rice is ready to cook, and is finished in just 2 to 4 minutes easily, without the need to add water or broth. We have turned a universal and delicious ingredient, but one that is often complicated due to lack of culinary skills and hectic lifestyles, into an ideal speed scratch cooking ingredient.”
The way food is processed completely changes its nutritional properties, he added, meaning there’s a health boost too. The company has been chosen to be part of this year's EIT Food Accelerator at the Haifa hub of the ‘Food as a Medicine’ programme.
“The minimal processing we do causes the rice to have a higher proportion of Slowly Digestible Starch (SDS). If traditional cooked rice has a 24% of SDS our rice has 52%. This means that it releases sustained energy without causing blood glucose spikes. Our GI is only 23 when the GI of white rice is 70.
"On top of that, our rice can be infused with nutrients in a precise way, so we can manufacture highly targeted nutrition meals for specific age groups.
"Ultra-processed foods have become top sellers because of their convenience and taste: the industry knows how to enhance flavours with sugar, salt, trans fats, flavourings and additives and price. For a healthy product to be successful it also needs to be tasty, affordable and convenient.”
Rice In Action’s rice is grown by a small co-operative at the foot of the Pyrenees. It is the rice grown at the highest altitude in Spain, in a dry and cold climate, with melt water, Pais told us. This means that it needs less fungicides and chemicals than in the traditional cultivation areas, which are usually in the deltas, at the end of the river, with a lot of humidity and more polluted water.
“To flavour the rice and broths we use valorised vegetables that would normally leave the circuit, in dehydrated form. Our process is much more efficient in terms of resources, energy and water, as cooking times are radically reduced.”
A further problem is solved: labour shortages
Right now the company launching operations offering paellas and risottos to food service in Spain. “We are solving a huge pain, which is the lack of specialised labour to offer quality elaborate dishes in food service,” added Pais. “Five-star hotels, restaurants, offer dishes based on our rice.
We are looking for international partners to exploit this technology: Licensees looking to exploit this novel technology for verticals and segments.
“Right now we have a pilot plant that can manufacture 3 million servings per year, but a much larger scale is easily achievable. For this reason, we are seeking interested co-manufacturers.”