PHILIPPINES- Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines have discovered the genes responsible for low and ultra-low glycemic index (GI) in rice. 

Their findings have been used to develop rice varieties with a low GI score of 44, which could revolutionize the diets of diabetic consumers and potentially impact billions of people worldwide.

The scientists utilized the Samba Mahsuri x IR36ae rice varieties to create these innovative low GI rice strains. Given that three of the world’s four most populous nations, including India, China, and Indonesia, rely on rice as their staple food, this discovery holds tremendous promise for millions of people.

Rice is the main staple in more than 100 countries and nearly half of the world’s population,” said Ajay Kohli, interim Director General at IRRI. “With this finding, researchers can now convert popular rice varieties anywhere in the world into low and ultra-low GI for refined white rice through conventional breeding starting in the Philippines.”

Kohli further explained that consumers could expect to see these low-GI rice varieties in the Philippine market within a couple of years. 

The first batch of ultra-low GI rice samples was unveiled at the 6th International Rice Congress in Manila earlier this month, sparking hope for a healthier and more accessible dietary choice for people worldwide.

The glycemic index (GI) is a scale used to rank foods from 0 to 100 based on their effect on blood sugar levels. Lower GI values indicate a smaller impact on blood sugar.

The  IRRI classifies GI levels below 45 as ultra-low, 46-55 as low, and above 70 as high.

While brown rice generally has a lower GI compared to white rice, numerous popular cultivated rice varieties have GIs ranging from 70 to 92, causing concern about elevated blood sugar levels among consumers, particularly in nations where rice is a dietary staple. 

It is a significant issue given that diabetes was the direct cause of 1.5 million deaths worldwide in 2019, and the International Diabetes Federation estimates that there were 537 million people with diabetes in 2021.

High GI foods are also linked to an increased risk of obesity and cardiovascular diseases, emphasizing the importance of the GI scale in aiding consumers in making healthier dietary choices.

Not a reason to overindulge

While the discovery of ultra-low GI rice varieties offers hope to individuals with diabetes, experts caution against using it as a license to overindulge. 

Devinder Sharma, a leading food security specialist in India, emphasized that many consumers in the Asia-Pacific region are “forced” to limit their rice consumption due to diabetes. With ultra-low GI rice, the freedom to consume rice may be restored, but this should lead to moderate consumption.

Rodrigo Angelo Ong, Chief Research Specialist at the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care, warned against misinterpreting the discovery, stating, “If people start eating more rice just because of the lower GI, it defeats the purpose.” 

He stressed that the same principles of proper portioning of rice and moderate carbohydrate intake should still be followed.

The breakthrough in developing ultra-low-GI rice is just one aspect of ongoing research and innovation in the field of rice. Scientists are not only focused on enhancing climate resilience and productivity but also on creating healthier rice varieties for consumers.

For example, high-zinc rice varieties were released a few years ago, and gene-modified golden rice engineered to have higher levels of beta-carotene (vitamin A) is in development, both of which promise to address nutritional deficiencies in rice-consuming populations.

Moreover, rice is also being explored for its applications in various food and beverage products. Companies like Ingredion have introduced multifunctional rice starch that enhances texture and shelf stability in dairy products, sauces, and meat alternatives. 

Rice isolate is being used as a protein source in a ready-to-mix vanilla protein beverage, marking a step forward in utilizing rice for nutritional purposes.