On the shelves in Myanmar: rice for life

March 3, 2016 by Dr. Myo Myint Aung

We gave a food that’s served at nearly every meal a nutrient boost, while ensuring it still tastes, smells, and looks appetizing.
Employee supervising machine filling large bags with rice flour, with stacks of the bags in the foreground.

An employee in a fortified rice manufacturing plant oversees the bagging of rice flour. Photo: PATH/Minzayar.

In Myanmar, rice is a central part of life. It is the base for most, if not all, meals. According to the Myanmar Rice Federation, Myanmar people consume more rice per person than any country in the world. That’s a lot of rice. And not just any rice. People in our country are picky about their rice and can distinguish among many varieties. They prize rice that is the whitest, that smells good, and that cooks up to a pleasing volume.

Schoolgirl with traditional thanaka paste on her face.

Fortified rice provides much needed micronutrients to a child’s diet. Photo: PATH/Minzayar.

In my country, more than one-third of children under five years old are chronically malnourished or stunted and nearly every three out of four pregnant women are anemic. These micronutrient deficiencies have lifelong consequences for health, productivity, and mental development. Worldwide they are associated with 10 percent of all child deaths. Rice may be filling us up but it’s not delivering the nutrients we need to thrive.

When I first heard about PATH’s project to introduce fortified rice in Myanmar I immediately liked that it wasn’t asking people to change their behavior. I know people in my country need better nutrition but asking them to change long-held traditions isn’t the answer. Embedding the nutrients in what they already eat is.

So what is fortified rice?

A closeup of a conveyor belt carrying fortified grains with a gloved hand in the background.

A milling plant produces fortified grains that look and taste like rice, but are actually made of rice flour fortified with vitamins and minerals. These will be mixed with rice in a 1-to-100 ratio. Photo: PATH/Minzayar.

Basically it’s 100 grains of regular rice with one specially manufactured vitamin- and mineral-enriched kernel mixed in. In Myanmar, this fortified kernel includes a government-approved dose of iron, zinc, vitamin A,and B vitamins B1, B3, B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12—all essential and natural elements of a healthy diet for the general population.

Fortified rice: on the grocery store shelves in Yangon. Mothers and fathers concerned about their families’—and especially their children’s health—have a new option. We hope many will be willing to pay a little bit more for rice that looks and tastes exactly the same as what their family is accustomed to eating, but delivers far greater nutritional benefits. Rice fortification has proven to be effective in reducing micronutrient deficiencies in several clinical trials across the globe.

View our slideshow “Boosting nutrition through fortified rice in Myanmar” to see how this innovation can help break the cycle  of malnutrition.

PATH is working with private companies and rice millers in Myanmar who are willing to take a risk, who believe that investing in the equipment necessary to produce fortified rice will pay off as the product catches on and consumer demand grows. With funding from the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund, PATH is supporting the introduction of this new product with technical assistance and a sophisticated marketing campaign.

Government validation is also critical. Recently the National Nutrition Centre released a quality seal for brands that meet their standards for fortification and food safety. The official government seal, which features the green stems of rice paddy, will instill confidence in consumers that they are getting what they are paying for.

Small steps on the road to health

A Burmese woman with Thanakha paste on her face holds a toddler while sitting on a bench.

PATH is working with public and private partners to ensure more families, and their children, have access to healthy fortified rice and its nutritional benefits. Photo: PATH/Minzayar.

PATH is helping Myanmar take small steps. As we work with the private sector to create a niche market for fortified rice, we are also working with development agencies to directly distribute fortified rice to people most in need. Working together, both channels will have an impact and fewer children in our country will fail to reach their full potential.

As director of PATH’s fortified rice project, I know how hard it has been to get this far—to engage government regulators, import necessary equipment, and convince private-sector companies to participate. But when I walk to my local grocery store, see the fortified rice displayed on the shelf, and witness a mother with a young child on her hip putting it into her basket, I will know it has all been worth it. That day will come very soon.