Thursday, June 30, 2022

Charting a new frontier

LSU-bred higher-protein, low-glycemic rice variety gains traction.

• By Vicky Boyd,
Editor •

michael fruge chats with ida wenefrida, herry tomo
(from left) Rice producer Michael Fruge chats with LSU AgCenter rice researchers Ida Wenefrida and Herry Utomo — photo courtesy LSU AgCenter

Rice already has a strong nutritional profile. After all, it is one of the first solid foods recommended for babies because of its ease of digestibility.

Two producers want to take rice’s nutrition to the next level by growing and marketing Frontière, a higher-protein low-glycemic long-grain variety from the Louisiana State University AgCenter breeding program. They also hope to capitalize on the latest “plant-based protein” consumer trend.

Blake Gerard of Cape McLure, Illinois, markets the variety under the Cahokia label, paying tribute to the Cahokia Native American Indian Tribe that made its home in the area. And

Michael Fruge of Eunice, Louisiana, promotes the variety under the Parish Rice brand, which gives a shout out to Louisiana. Both producers are doing so under an agreement with Frontière’s lone licensee, Bob Butcher.

Traditional breeding techniques

LSU AgCenter researchers Herry Utomo and Ida Wenefrida several years ago began developing a higher-protein rice to address global malnutrition. Rice is the most widely consumed grain worldwide, yet it only averages between 6% to 7% protein.

“Because of where we come from, we wanted to look at the malnutrition problem,” said Utomo, an LSU Ag Center genetics professor who grew up in Indonesia. “Most of the people who cannot afford anything else depend on rice. We thought maybe we could provide better nutrition from rice.”

But developing higher protein levels along with desirable agronomic characteristics did not come easily. The two researchers used a mutagenesis technique similar to that used to produce semi-dwarf varieties. As such, plant lines developed with this method are not considered genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Utomo and Wenefrida then screened the lines for high lysine levels that indicated higher amounts of protein.

Cypress parentage

The researchers started with Cypress — an LSU AgCenter-bred semi-dwarf long grain known for its excellent grain quality released in 1992. After seven to eight years, the LSU AgCenter released the patented variety, Frontière, in 2017.

frontiere rice
Foundation seed of low glycemic Frontiére rice at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station, Crowley, Louisiana — photo by Herry Utomo

It averages 10.6% protein, or 54% more than most conventional long-grain rice varieties. And Utomo and Wenefrida are working to increase protein levels even further in potential future release.

As a semi-dwarf, Frontière stands about 36 inches tall and has good lodging resistance. With the Cypress genetic background, it is moderately susceptible to rice blast and very susceptible to sheath blight.

Frontière has similar high-quality milling as Cypress, but its cook type falls between Cypress and Cocodrie — likely because of the higher protein levels, Utomo said.

In the field, growers manage Frontière as they would Cypress, although the higher-protein line yields about 10% less than Cypress. That is one of the agronomic traits Utomo and Wenefrida want to improve.

Lower glycemic index

What Gerard and Fruge have found is the higher protein-to-carbohydrate ratio helped reduce the grain’s glycemic index. The two funded a study by Toronto, Canada-based Inquis Clinical Research, which specializes in determining a product’s glycemic index and glycemic load.

Initially, Fruge said they presumed the glycemic index for Frontière would be similar to that for brown rice, which typically has a medium glycemic index.

“It came back low, way more than we had ever dreamed of,” Fruge said. “Brown rice versus white rice is a 10-point difference. Well, we went from 70 for long grain to 41.”

Regular white rice has a glycemic index of 73. Considered on the high side, it means that the carbohydrates are easily digested, absorbed and metabolized. This results in a quick spike in blood sugar.

While a sprinter may want that quick burst of energy, someone with diabetes who is looking to stabilize blood sugar levels may not. But Frontière has a glycemic index of less than 55, or in the low category. That means when someone eats a serving, the starches are slowly broken down, provide a more sustained energy source and don’t produce large blood sugar spikes.

In many cases, the low-glycemic index also means that people with diabetes or pre-diabetes can now eat Frontière rice without the same health concerns as conventional white rice, Utomo said.

Cahokia gains momentum

cahokia brand
Missouri producer Blake Gerard markets his Frontière under the Cahokia Rice label. It’s available as white or brown rice.

Gerard is in his fourth year growing and marketing Frontière under his Cahokia brand, and he has seen demand continue to grow. He offers it as brown or white rice in 1- and 2-pound consumer bags as well as 25-pound bulk bags.

Most of his sales are to food service, although he also sells to area grocery stores and directly to consumers.

“It’s gaining momentum,” Gerard said. “It’s always slower than you want, but we’re definitely gaining momentum. The key is marketing and promoting the product in the right arena and getting in front of the right people. We’ve got the right person in place with marketing doing an unbelievable job.”

With it also comes education. Gerard said he regularly receives emails from consumers asking how he removes gluten from his rice (rice is naturally gluten free) and whether his rice is non-GMO (yes it is, since there is no commercial GMO rice).

As a cyclist and triathlete himself, Gerard said he originally thought a large portion of his customer base would be athletes seeking the sustained energy release offered by the variety. But he said the market actually is quite diverse.

“Different people like it for different reasons,” he said. “You have a group that like it for the low-glycemic scores because they are diabetic or pre-diabetic — that’s a big draw. There are other people where that’s not a big deal. They buy it for the quality, taste and texture. (Frontière) is very close to Cypress, and Cypress is a good quality rice.”

In addition, many consumers in the Chicago metropolitan area, which is only about six hours from Gerard’s farm, like Cahokia rice because it is locally grown.

A nod to Louisiana

Fruge said he became interested in Frontière as part of his goal to grow rice varieties he could market under his own label. He and Gerard came to a sub-licensing agreement since their marketing territories do not overlap. Initially, Fruge marketed Frontière under the Prairie Acadian Rice brand, which highlighted the area around Eunice where he grew the rice.

parish rice
Louisiana producer Michael Fruge rebranded his Frontière as Parish Rice to give a nod to Louisiana.

After having a local marketing agency review his branding, he said he decided to rename it Parish Rice. Although many people in Southwest Louisiana are familiar with Acadiana, those outside the area may not be.

“They asked me about rebranding, and I basically told them no,” Fruge said. “I wanted it tied to Eunice. They made me realize if I go out of state, a lot of people understand Louisiana and the Cajun culture and food. They convinced me to tie it to Louisiana and not just Eunice.”

The word “parish” carries out that goal since Louisiana is the only state in the union to use those unique administrative districts. It’s also a term with which many consumers are familiar.

So far, most of Fruge’s customers have been food service, including university athletic departments. As the pandemic wanes and people eat out more, he said he hopes demand also will increase.

“We’re starting to see an uptick,” he said. “More and more people are starting to find out about it.”

Learn more in this LSU AgCenter video:

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