When consumers consider what to make for dinner these days, brown rice has gone from an infrequent novelty – the near-exclusive preserve of macrobiotic-diet followers and other “health nuts” – to a viable side-dish option or meal base. But what’s behind this dramatic surge in popularity, which the Arlington,Va.-based USA Rice Federation has pegged as double-digit growth over the past few years?
The answer is, in a word, health. Last year brown rice earned FDA approval to carry the whole grain health claim that “[d]iets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods, and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, may help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.”
Additionally, the food contains fiber and essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamins B and E, magnesium, and iron, which can help maintain energy, prevent age-related diseases, increase satiety, and maintain muscles. To top it off, the highly digestible, nonallergenic complex carbohydrate is naturally sodium-, gluten-and cholesterol-free, and contains no saturated or trans fat.
But even more miraculous than brown rice’s health benefits is that consumers seem to be taking notice. According to the 2008 Eating Well magazine/USA Rice survey, 87 percent said they would be likely to eat more whole grains if these foods were clearly labeled as whole grains, while 68 percent said they would increase consumption if the health benefits were featured on the package.
Seeing a golden opportunity to help shoppers and sales simultaneously, grocers with foresight have been getting in on the act. Sanbury, Pa.-based Weis Markets will receive the 2008 USA Rice Chain Retailer of the Year Award, in recognition for its outstanding promotions of U.S. whole grain brown rice during September National Rice Month.
Employing television media, in-store radio, newsletters, and ad circulars to educate shoppers about brown rice’s health benefits and the FDA claim, Weis was able to boost brown rice sales at its stores a whopping 350 percent. (See Progressivegrocer.com/centerstore for more retail rice promotions honored by the USA Rice Federation, as well as other Web-only material on rice and pasta.)
Manufacturers are paying close attention, too, as brown rice finally gets “the nutritional recognition it deserves,” in the words of Sean Silk, marketing director, Uncle Ben’s brand at Rancho Dominguez, Calif.-based Mars North America. “Uncle Ben’s recognizes the importance of whole grains in everyday meal plans, as well as the continued need for the U.S. population to increase whole grain consumption,” adds Silk. “This FDA approval provides additional food options for the everyday consumer, allowing them to come closer to the recommended [three-day] daily intake of whole grains.”
Uncle Ben’s, the No. 1-selling rice in the United States, offers a wide range of whole grain SKUs, and will soon roll out another: Boil-in-Bag Whole Grain Brown Rice is set to make its debut in March 2009. On its outer box, the convenient product prominently displays the Whole Grains Council 100% Whole Grain stamp and a Healthy Heart icon for easy whole grain identification. The first Boil-in-Bag product made with whole grains, the item “is expect[ed] to fly off the shelves,” according to the brand.
Health meets value
Perhaps most important of all in this financial climate, brown rice offers an inexpensive meal solution for cash-strapped Americans struggling to make ends meet. At just 10 cents per half-cup serving, the food provides great value. Plus a little goes a long way: A pound of uncooked rice more than doubles when cooked. “Today it’s more important than ever to be able to eat healthfully and economically,” emphasizes Anne Banville, v.p. domestic promotion at the USA Rice Federation. “Rice is a smart solution for consumers.”
The near future seems to hold even more positive health news for rice. As enriched rice is a good source of folic acid, which may play an important role in protecting against cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease, the USA Rice Federation is teaming with the National Council on Folic Acid to raise awareness of the importance of this nutrient in the diet. Meanwhile, an upcoming Rice Utilization Workshop conference will focus on the role of resistant starch, a form of dietary fiber found in cooked-and-cooled rice, in satiety, physical performance, immunity, and type 2 diabetes.
For more info on rice, go to Progressivegrocer.com/centerstore.
Progressive Grocer Magazine article used with the permission of Nielsen Business Media, Inc.