Guest contributor Kate Bagshaw is a member of our staff in the Mekong region of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
Early one recent Saturday morning, a group of volunteers gathered near the busy 56 Wards Market in Yangon, Myanmar, to conduct a study. With the help of staff from PATH and the Burnet Institute, the volunteers readied their equipment to test 30 participants carefully chosen to represent a cross-section of the community.
Their goal: to determine if consumers could tell the difference between three bowls of seemingly identical rice.
The difference: micronutrients
The study volunteers, from the Myanmar Red Cross and the country’s Maternal and Child Welfare Association, were conducting a taste test pitting two kinds of unfortified rice against a blend of grains fortified using the Ultra Rice® technology.
The fortified grains are designed to deliver essential micronutrients—including iron, folic acid, vitamin A, thiamine, and zinc—that otherwise might be missing from local diets. At a ratio of 99 traditional grains of rice for every 1 grain of fortified rice, the idea is to produce a nutrient-rich blend that looks, feels, smells, and tastes nearly identical to unfortified rice.
Fortified rice is already making a difference for millions of people in India, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, Mali, and Vietnam. Along with groups at two other markets in Myanmar, the volunteers in Yangon were helping us determine not only whether the taste testers could pick out the fortified rice, but also if local consumers are likely to buy and eat the rice blend if it becomes available in their local markets, which could happen as soon as the end of the year.
Bridging gaps, building markets
In Myanmar, the need for better nutrition is telling. For example, six in ten preschoolers and half of pregnant women suffer from anemia, which can stunt the growth of young children, cause problems for newborns, and reduce the productivity of the entire population. Adding micronutritient-rich grains to the rice people eat every day is one of the most cost-effective ways to bridge nutritional gaps. And since it doesn’t require people to change their diet or behavior, it’s less disruptive than many interventions.
Our work with the Myanmar National Nutrition Centre, Department of Health, Ministry of Health, United Nations agencies, and private-sector partners to build a sustainable market for fortified rice holds promise of supporting the country’s efforts to improve the lives of its people, especially vulnerable women and children.
Which rice is it?
Back at the testing sites, crowds gathered around the tasters as they sampled rice from one bowl after another, rating taste, color, smell, and appearance. They also commented on the stickiness, hardness, and chewiness of the rice. Their ratings will help us to confirm whether the fortified blend will be acceptable to consumers—and to tweak production of the fortified grains so the blend more closely resembles the rice they normally eat.
Each study participant was then required to choose the bowl of rice that tasted different. In the end, roughly two-thirds of participants chose incorrectly. They identified the unfortified rice as the fortified blend.
“One participant tasted the rice five times,” said Khin Khin Cho, a volunteer study representative, “and still could not pick a single sample that tasted different.”
Experiences like this will help us know if a fortified rice blend can be smoothly assimilated into the lives of Myanmar’s women and children.
- Our work in nutrition.
- Fact sheet on Ultra Rice technology.
- Addressing hidden hunger with rice fortification.
Ultra Rice is a registered US trademark of Bon Dente International, Inc.
Funding for this project is provided by the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT).