The hoax of ‘Plastic Rice’: It is not plastic but full of nutrients

The hoax of ‘Plastic Rice’: It is not plastic but full of nutrients

Fortified Rice Pellets may be a Game Changer in context of malnutrition

Recently in different parts of the country, news of rice being adulterated with plastic rice caused a lot of panic among consumers. Rumours began making the rounds on social media where videos/photos showed how plastic rice was being sold openly at public distribution outlets or grocery stores. However, before we decode the term ‘plastic rice’, let us understand whether the entity exists or not.
The term ‘plastic rice’ first surfaced in China when the famous Wuchang rice scandal took place. In 2010, manufacturers from China added flavouring to ordinary rice and started selling it off a brand, Wuchang rice, which began to be called as ‘plastic rice.’ The term later popped up again in Korea where distributors were seen selling fake rice made from a mixture of potatoes, sweet potatoes, and plastic. This plastic rice was also allegedly made from synthetic resin, which was moulded into the shape of real rice. However, artificial rice is more expensive to manufacture than producing real rice. The possibility of plastic rice in India and especially in a place like Jammu and Kashmir, where majority of the population consumes rice as the staple food, is somewhat unbelievable as both India and the region itself produce enough rice for consumption and there is no shortage of it.
But a recent controversy surrounding plastic rice has left many consumers scared. Alleged rumours of plastic rice being sold in PDS shops are making the rounds, and people can’t stop wondering if it’s true. The Department of Food Supplies has called the news “fake”, as they are in fact facing the challenge of managing excess paddy procurement and preservation of old stock in godowns.
In an effort to strengthen and ensure nutritional security by means of value addition, the government of India has decided to scale up distribution of fortified rice and start supplying it through Integrated Child Development Services and Mid-Day Meal scheme. Currently, fortified rice is being distributed via ration shops, also called the public distribution system (PDS). The objective of the scheme was to address anaemia and micronutrient deficiency in the country. It is estimated that India’s population consumes about 65 percent of rice as staple food. Fortification of rice is a cost-effective and complementary strategy to increase vitamin and mineral content in diets and a step towards nutritional security. The government intends to fortify all rice with iron and vitamins and distribute it under various subsidised food-security schemes. But experts are still clueless on whether this move will be able to solve the country’s notoriously longstanding malnutrition problem, especially among women and children.

Why Fortification of Rice?
Fortified rice is produced by blending fortified rice kernels with regular rice through use of various blending solutions in the ratio of 1:100 and hence it is advised that fortified rice be bagged in normal 50 kg gunny bags provided/specified by FCI with proper labelling as per FSSAI guidelines, to differentiate fortified rice from regular rice. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) define fortification as “deliberately increasing the content of essential micronutrients in a food so as to improve the nutritional quality of food and to provide public health benefit with minimal risk to health”. Rice fortification is a process of adding micronutrients to regular cultivated rice keeping in view dietary requirements. Technologically advanced machinery is available for rice fortification, coating and dusting. In India, ‘extrusion technology’ is considered to be the best technology for rice fortification, involving the production of fortified rice kernels (FRKs) from a mixture using an extruder machine. These are then blended with common rice to produce fortified rice. In extrusion technology, dry rice flour is mixed with a premix of micronutrients, followed by addition of water. It then goes into a twin-screw extruder with heating zones, which produces kernels similar in shape and size to rice. These kernels are dried, cooled and packaged for use.
Fortified Rice Kernels have shelf life of at least 12 months. As per the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, the shape and size of the fortified rice kernel should “resemble the normal milled rice as closely as possible” and the length/breadth of the grain should be 5 mm and 2.2 mm respectively. Under the Ministry’s guidelines, 10 g of FRK must be blended with 1 kg of regular rice. According to regulations laid down by FSSAI, 1 kg of fortified rice will contain the following: iron (28 mg-42.5 mg), folic acid (75-125 microgram), and vitamin B-12 (0.75-1.25 microgram).
Fortification of food is considered to be one of the most suitable methods to combat malnutrition. In India, for about two-thirds of the population per capita consumption of rice is 6.8 kg per month; so, fortifying rice with micronutrients is an option to supplement the diet of the poor. The cooking of fortified rice doesn’t require any special procedure; it needs to be cleaned and washed in the normal way before cooking. After cooking, fortified rice retains the same physical properties and micronutrient levels as it had before cooking. The packing (FSSAI Packaging regulations) is to be made in jute bags with the logo (‘+F’) and the line “Fortified with Iron, Folic Acid, and Vitamin B12” mandatorily printed on the pack. At the global level, seven countries have mandated rice fortification: the United States, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, and the Solomon Islands.

In Context of Malnutrition
India has very high levels of malnutrition among women and children. According to the Food Ministry, every second woman in the country is anaemic and every third child is stunted. India ranks 94 out of 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index (GHI), which puts it in the ‘serious hunger’ category. An emphasis on fortification alone may help little to improve anaemia, because from a nutrition point of view, absorption of iron depends on the availability of other nutrients that can come only from a diversified diet. In Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli, rice fortified with iron had shown a reduction in anaemia prevalence by 10% and improved average cognitive scores by 11.3 points (Source: HT). A meta-analysis by World Health Organization showed rice fortified with vitamins and minerals, including iron, reduce the risk of iron deficiency by 35%.
Micronutrient deficiencies are one of the main causes of poor health and disability, and it affects over 2 billion people worldwide. Diet lacking essential vitamins and minerals is likely to increase morbidity and mortality rates and impair physical growth and cognitive development. Deficiencies have long-ranging effects on health, learning ability, and productivity, and negatively impact health care costs and gross domestic product. Micronutrient deficiencies are mainly caused by suboptimal dietary intake, hence multiple micronutrient deficiencies also co-exist. The deficiencies are not only a concern among developing countries but are more frequent and severe among disadvantaged populations. They also represent a public health problem in industrialised countries. Moreover, the increase of calorie-rich but nutrient-poor diets in industrialised countries and those in social and economic transition decreases the likelihood of consuming the recommended daily intake of essential nutrients. Ultimately, the best way to prevent micronutrient malnutrition is to ensure consumption of a balanced diet. Yet, the reality is that this is often not happening, and can be very challenging to realise, especially when a balanced diet is not affordable or accessible to vulnerable groups or the dietary habits are not in place.

Quality Factors
Different varieties of rice are available in the market to suit different consumer preferences. The quality factors are related to grain length, stickiness, aroma, texture, and flavour. Nutritional content may also vary between different types of rice. Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, contains two major groups: indica (long-grain) and japonica (short-grain). Other types of Asian rice include glutinous rice and aromatic rice. Oryza glaberrima, or African rice, includes long- and short-grain varieties. All varieties of rice can be processed post-harvest as either white or brown rice, affecting flavour, texture and nutritive value. Milling of rice post-harvest always leads to some grains being broken; a higher proportion of broken grains decreases the price as the quality is generally acknowledged to be reduced. On the governmental level, generally, two teams, one from the Food and Civil Supplies department along with the Quality assurance person, and another from the Food Corporation of India must ensure inspection of paddy quality in storage godowns and warehouses, twice in a month or two.
In the event of claims by consumers about the presence of plastic rice supplied by Government PDS shops, it is pertinent to mention that by nature plastic rice cannot be cooked as its melting point increases with the increase in temperature. So, no rice can be made from any kind of plastic material. Besides this, chemical tests can be conducted on the suspected sample of rice. Small amounts of rice grains are taken and 20ml of Methylene blue is poured on them, followed by washing with Hydrochloric acid and finally stained with 20ml of Methylene yellow. The colour of the rice will change to greenish in case of adulterated rice, while the colour of the real rice grains would remain white.
More than 86 countries have mandated cereal grain (e.g., rice, wheat, maize, etc.) fortification. Fortification has minimal effects on taste and cooking properties. Multiple micronutrients can be added to a single food to reduce multiple nutrient deficiencies. Considering these benefits, fortification presents an opportunity to address micronutrient malnutrition at a mass scale. In India, rice fortification has the highest potential among staple food fortification programmes as it is the staple food of 65 percent of the population and reaches the most vulnerable sections.
Rice has the highest uptake in government safety net programmes such as Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Public Distribution System (PDS), and the Mid Day Meal (MDM), with a potential reach of 800 million vulnerable people in India, especially women and children. Department of Food & Public Distribution (DFPD) is primarily concerned with promoting food security at the household level; however, with the launch of the Poshan Abhiyan, DFPD is now also trying to explore the feasibility of supporting ongoing efforts by different ministries in promoting nutrition security.
The rumours of plastic rice are just hoaxes spread by people who wish to support locally grown rice rather than import of rice from other countries. Moreover, plastic rice can easily be detected when cooking, as it cannot withstand the heat. However, the FSSAI has said that if they receive any such complaints of plastic rice they will take it seriously and if found to be genuine, will take action under the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006. FSSAI also urge citizens to neither believe nor circulate this fake news through their social media channels.

—The writer is Advisor (SSD), Food and Consumer Affairs, Government of Madhya Pradesh, AIGGPA, Bhopal. Opinions expressed in this article are based on review of scientific research and have nothing to do with the organisation
he works for.

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