Can the food ingredient serve as alternative to wheat?

With wheat prices soaring, rice flour is attracting attention as an alternative. It is hoped that the government will actively help boost rice consumption, which remains sluggish.

Rice flour is made by finely grinding rice into powder. It is used as an ingredient in such foods as rice crackers and wagashi traditional Japanese sweets.

Wheat is soft and easy to mill, but rice is hard and takes time to mill into flour. In recent years, however, technological advances reportedly have made it easier to process rice into fine powder.

Japan relies on imports for about 90% of its wheat, and the government manages the imports in an integrated manner, selling the wheat to millers and others. The price was raised nearly 20% in October 2021 and again in April this year. Due to the Ukraine crisis, the price is expected to remain high.

This has led to a spate of price hikes for bread, noodles and other wheat-based foods. If rice flour can be used as an alternative, the benefits would be enormous.

Rice can be supplied domestically and prices also are stable. Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate remains at 38% on a caloric basis, the lowest level among developed countries. According to an estimate, if each person in the nation ate three loaves of bread made with domestically produced rice flour per month, the self-sufficiency rate would increase by 1%.

It is vital to link the promulgation of rice flour to strengthening the nation’s food security.

The demand for rice to be used as rice flour was about 41,000 tons in fiscal 2021, or about eight times the level in fiscal 2009. The government has set a target of increasing the figure to 130,000 tons in fiscal 2030. The key to significantly increasing demand will be to develop products that take advantage of the unique qualities of rice flour.

The group company of Kameda Seika Co. sells rice flour bread and is increasing its selection of products that bring out the pleasantly sticky texture. Pasco Shikishima Corp. said its uniquely textured bread made with a mixture of rice flour and wheat flour is selling well.

NH Foods Ltd. has commercialized rice flour pasta products amid the increasing needs of people with wheat allergies.

The government has subsidized necessary expenses for food companies that make and sell new products that use rice flour instead of imported wheat. Food companies should continue to devise ways in this regard.

The diversification of dietary habits has caused Japanese people to move away from rice. Annual consumption per capita in fiscal 2021 was down more than 50% from about 60 years ago.

If demand continues to fall, the rice production base could be undermined. The promulgation of rice flour should be utilized to deter people from shying away from rice.

The challenge is cost. The cost of milling rice flour per kilogram is said to range from about ¥70 to ¥340, higher than the around ¥50 for wheat flour. It is hoped that efforts will be made to reduce the cost through technological development and mass production.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 17, 2022)