food / travel

China's Existential Question: Is Rice Unhealthy?

What happens when the rice v. wheat debate arrives in a land that has been eating the white stuff for 12,000 years.

Feeding the masses
Feeding the masses
Xin Li

BEIJING — A recent article declaring rice "the king of junk food" has set China's Internet boiling over. The article argues that white rice is nutritionally deficient, containing very little protein, adipose, vitamins and minerals, and that its starch content technically qualifies it as junk food.

Generally, those in northern China tend to eat noodles, while southerners choose rice instead. Still, rice is estimated to be the staple food of more than half the Chinese population.

"In America, whether rice or wheat is healthier has always been a controversial subject," says Zhang Chao, who studied and lived in the U.S. for many years.

Zhang recalls a lunch he had with a Thai classmate. When seeing the rice they were eating, one American classmate told them with disdain, "Why do you Asian guys like this non-nutritious stuff?" Then the American pulled out some yogurt with oats — a "perfect" food from a strictly nutritional point of view, because it's rich in dietary fiber, aids digestion, stimulates gastrointestinal motility, and avoids fat being stocked in the body.

This was a big shock for Zhang, who had been eating rice as a staple food for over 20 years.

Zhang's American classmate wasn't wrong. The official website of Harvard's School of Public Health nutrition department has designed a Healthy Eating Pyramid to guide consumers. It divides daily nutrition sources into four major groups — the ones to be eaten the most often (and the greater variety the better), the ones to be eaten more moderately, the ones to eat very moderately, and the ones to be eaten sparingly.

The pyramid recommends avoiding white rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, red meat, processed meat and butter, refined grains, sugary drinks, sweets and salt. But 20 years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was putting rice, bread and grains at the bottom of the pyramid, meaning that they were supposed to be staple foods.

Refined or unrefined?

In dietetician Liu Na's view, demonizing rice is out of context. "We have to specify one concept first — for example, most of the rice or bread we eat today is refined. Therefore, when talking about nutrition, white rice is often taken as a negative example because this beautiful grain that has been polished and de-husked provides too many empty calories while containing only 36% of other nutritional ingredients."

The science of dietetics is relatively new. The brown rice that nutritionists now prefer used to be a symbol of poverty back when machinery was underdeveloped, meaning that unrefined rice still contained the cortex, the rice aleurone layer and the germ. It takes much longer to cook and also tastes rough. But while it may be a little unappetizing to some, brown rice provides dietary fiber that people often lack, not to mention a considerable amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Mealtime in Shanghai. Photo: OG2T

So why is rice considered inferior to wheat?

As Liu Na points out, most grains are refined. "For instance, the best part of the flour — the wheat bran — is almost all gone in white flour. It's true that if the same quantity of refined rice and flour are compared, the flour has twice as much vitamin B1 and B2 as the rice.

In recent years nutrition experts have come to attach greater importance to B1 and B2 because problems such as fatigue are related to inadequate intake of these vitamins. The trouble is that they can't be stored in our bodies, and therefore they need to be consumed frequently.

People eating rice as their staple food are also more susceptible to suffering from Beriberi, a metabolism-related disease that can lead to total paralysis of the limbs and, eventually, death. This is probably the strongest criticism of rice. The disease ravaged Japan in the late 19th century and almost destroyed the entire Japanese Navy.

Knowing that the British Navy had stopped the scourge of scurvy by changing the soldiers' diet, Japanese medical officers compared the Japanese army diet with that of the British. The most apparent difference was that the British ate almost no rice, instead consuming other grains such as barley. When the Japanese army substituted barley for the rice, it solved the problem. So since the Meiji Restoration, as milling technology advanced, brown rice disappeared from the diets of urban Japanese and members of the army.

"From a protein point of view, though, rice contains an average of 7.3%, while wheat contains 10.7%," Liu says. "The wheat is poorer in nutrients because of the lack of lysine. Besides, 45% of Chinese people are intolerant of the protein in flour, which leads to a chronic allergic reaction and causes them to be overweight, though most people don't know this. In addition, rice contains more water and gives more of a sense of satiety with a relatively lower thermal energy and is thus easier for weight loss."

Building the races with food

No longer a rice eater, Zhang Chao notes that "people in southern and southeast Asia who eat rice as their main food are relatively small in stature." He also quotes the theory behind The Food of China written by American ethnobiologist Eugene N. Anderson. Though the Chinese continent comprises high mountains and basins and is rich in flora and fauna that provide diverse food options, the book notes, the Chinese somehow chose — and choose — rice as their staple. It may be nutritionally poor, but it is high in economic value and has helped the Chinese spawn a large population.

Reaping the harvest in Guangxi. Photo: Grey World

Food writer Hong Yie rather prefers to argue that humans have always followed the optimal foraging theory in choosing their food sources according to the environmental conditions they live in. "The fact that southerners prefer rice and the northerners wheat is determined by the environment," Hong says.

The warm, humid lushness of the Chinese south is a natural bed for wild rice, so as early as 12,000 years ago rice had been domesticated. Meanwhile, the arid north can only plant drought-resistant and alkali-resistant grains such as millet or corn. Wheat was a foreign grain that didn't come to China until about 4,000 years ago. "Thanks to its advantages of yield and resistance to pests and diseases, it replaced other grains to become the northerners' main food," Hong says.

Zhang is convinced that "none of the nations in the world whose staple is rice is strong physically," but Hong disagrees. Advantages of height or physique are never the result of a single food but are related largely to the environment and physical activity. "The Japanese conducted some experiments encouraging people to eat more noodles and bread," Hong says. "But their scientists discovered eventually that an increase in height has nothing to do with the intake of pasta. Rather it's more to do with soybean and milk products because a proper calcium intake will help people to grow bigger."

Rice vs. wheat self-images

While there is no clear evidence that eating rice or flour will cause physical differences, scientists concluded in a piece entitle "Rice Theory," published in Science last May, that different staple foods lead to psychological differences. For instance, Western culture is more individualized and analytical in its thinking, whereas Asians are more community-oriented and interested in holistic thinking.

One of the tests conducted in this rice theory research asked participants to draw their own social network with circles representing themselves and their connections. The researcher then measured the size of circles to find out the implicit measurement of these participants.

The test discovered that people from rice-growing regions are much more inclined to draw their own circles smaller than those of others. The people from wheat-growing regions have an inflated ego compared compared to others.

"Preferences to physical characteristics such as tall or short are more influenced by cultural factors than by animal instinct," Hong says. "Evolution is more about adaptation, not about superiority."

Guarding the stock in Wuxi. Photo: DaiLuo

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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