Every few years newspapers and magazines will quote medical practitioners, nutritionists and other health gurus to tell us that a certain cooking fat is the super-oil. Traditionally used oils such as mustard, coconut, groundnut, sesame, rapeseed will be discarded and people will start rushing to buy this new super-oil. Advertisements on television, in magazines and newspapers will extol the virtues of the new heart-healthy oil…saffola, sunola, olive oil and so on. The last one not from an oil seed traditionally grown in India. More recently the praises of rice bran oil are being sung loudly as the next heart-healthy oil. It is different from the rest – it is not from an oil seed unlike all traditional oils. So what is it? If you take a grain of paddy and remove the hull (see Figure of Rice Grain Structure below) what we are left with is unpolished brown rice.
At this stage rice is a whole grain and is rich in dietary fibre, various antioxidants, minerals and some vitamins. When this grain of rice is polished to make white rice (so that it can be stored easily for long duration) the dark layers called “bran” are removed. This bran is rich in oils and it is this oil that is being extracted to produce rice bran oil. Traditionally in India and other South Asian countries, rice bran has been used as animal feed. In parts of India (e.g., Kerala) where rice is consumed as parboiled rice, some of the bran is held in the rice grain during the parboiling process thereby retaining the fibre and nutritional value of rice. When we consume white, polished rice we are essentially consuming a refined grain that is primarily a source of starch with very little dietary fibre.
With this context let us look at the brown-rice-rice bran oil paradox. Whole grains are more nutritious, they have a low glycemic index, and in a population with increasing incidence of diabetes there is a great demand for whole grains such as brown rice or rice with bran. This demand is more in urban areas among the upper middle class. Demand for rice bran oil is also increasing in this class of society because it has a mild flavour, very suitable for high-temperature cooking like frying and is purported to be a heart-healthy oil. In addition, no manifestations of allergies have been reported with this oil, a fear that many urban Indians are beginning to express with groundnut oil (another import from globalisation – peanut allergy)!
Doctors are recommending rice bran oil because its active constituents reportedly improve blood cholesterol and increase the proportion of the good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol). So if you are really conscious of your health then you will want to eat brown rice (rice with bran intact) and use rice bran oil for cooking.
Let us look at the rest of the country, particularly those classified as BPL. The Public Distribution System (PDS) provides polished, white rice (completely devoid of bran) which has very low nutritive value. Even those who grow some paddy for home consumption take their paddy to be dehulled and polished and largely consume polished white rice as it is easier to cook and is considered a sign of affluence. The PDS also provides palm oil (most of which is imported) at subsidised prices and not rice bran oil or any other oil that is grown and produced locally.
The dilemma now is that we want more people to eat whole grain and brown rice since it is more nutritious. Diabetes and hypertension is increasing in out urban and rural areas which we want to address through increase of whole grains in diet. But we are also being told that we should replace our traditional oils with rice bran oil since it is “heart-healthy”. A third dimension to this is that the nutritious bran which traditionally was used by farmers to prepare cattle feed is not easily available. Farmers are dependent on poor quality synthetic feed which has impacted animal health as well as the quality of milk. Recently in August 2015, the Government of India removed quantitative restrictions on export of rice bran oil so there is bulk export of this oil while India continues to be major importer of edible oils.
Over the years Government policy dominated by international commitments to WTO and agribusiness has destroyed the highly diverse local oilseeds sector (mustard oil in the east and north, groundnut and rapeseed oil in the west, central and peninsular India, sesame oil in the South and coconut oil in coastal India) and with it impacted food cultures, nutrition and health of the present and future generations. In addition the health bulletins (often pushed by the agribusiness lobby) condemning traditional oils have tried to prescribe a uniform standard oil for everybody irrespective of their place of origin and traditional diet. The latest target is the rice grain! The nutritious bran which if held in the grain can be an excellent source of nutrition for our population. However what is happening is that the bran (with it the nutrition) is being stripped from the grain, oil extracted largely for a small section of the domestic market, but mostly for an export market, leaving behind the white, empty calories. The irony of this is incredible.
So to come back to the question: Can we eat brown rice and cook with rice bran oil? We have another option: Stick to our traditional oils, eat brown rice and use our own agency to assert our control over our food system.