It’s 2020, where it seems possible to make a healthy or vegan alternative to just about any kind of food. We’re milking oats and almonds instead of cows, using tech to make “bleeding” plant-based burgers, and using everything from lentils to zucchini to create gluten-free pasta. Now, you can count alternative rice as the latest alt-food to hit store shelves.
This goes beyond the idea of cauliflower rice, which—let’s be honest—can absolutely be used in all the same ways as the grain but has a texture and taste that’s its own. The new alternatives to rice are shelf-stable and aren’t made from cauliflower at all; they’re made from legumes. A few examples: Banza Chickpea Rice ($3), Trader Joe’s Organic Chickpea and Red Lentil Risoni ($3) and RightRice ($13 for three). It’s the latest proof of the chickpea revolution taking over the grocery store and menus across the nation—one of Well+Good’s biggest trends for 2020.
The inspiration for creating new alternatives to rice
RightRice CEO Keith Belling says the inspiration for their four-source blend was the goal of making a rice that’s as nutrient-dense as possible—while still cooking and tasting like OG rice. “We spent almost a year looking at a range of ingredients and blends, and found that the combination of lentils, chickpeas, green peas, and a bit of rice helped us deliver a unique rice alternative that has a rice-like taste, is easy to cook, and met all our nutritional goals,” he says.
Specifically, Belling says he and his team wanted to make their alternative rice low carb, low glycemic (meaning that it wouldn’t cause extreme blood sugar peaks and lows), and high fiber. To get there, they found it best to blend several different sources rather than do a one-for-one swap. “Each ingredient helped us hit different benchmarks,” he says. “For example, including a bit of rice flour enhanced the rice-like taste and texture as well as provided amino acids, which, when combined with the protein from the lentils, enabled us to deliver 10 grams of complete plant-based protein [per serving].”
Banza CEO Brian Rudolph says that because the brand had already amassed a following for its chickpea pasta, using chickpeas to make rice was a natural progression (and something that customers had been requesting). “We generally think people eat too much of the same three foods, which are wheat, rice, and corn. Those three foods make up over 50 percent of what people consume,” Rudolph says. He’s passionate about chickpeas because of their nutrient density and sustainability benefits. “The more people who eat beans, the better,” Rudolph previously told Well+Good. “Beans are great for people and the planet.”
For its part, Trader Joe’s uses a blend of chickpea flour and red lentil flour to make its new alt-rice product. “Legumes are legendary. Thanks to their starchy structure and formidable fiber content, legumes are lauded as a gratifying grain replacement all the world over,” an article announcing the product launch says. Like RightRice and Banza, this one from TJ’s also doesn’t have any preservatives.
What do all of these alt-rices have in common? The humble, trendy chickpea, of course!
Which alternative rice product is healthiest?
To be crystal clear, regular rice is not unhealthy. Rice has fiber, B vitamins, and protein. (These nutrients occur naturally in brown rice, while white rice has been stripped of the natural nutrition in the processing and then re-fortified.) Registered dietitian Melissa Rifkin, RD, says one reason why she thinks more people are looking for an alternative to traditional rice is the continued popularity of eating plans like the ketogenic diet and Paleo diet, which emphasize eating fewer carbs and grains. Others may want to limit high glycemic index food for the sake of their blood sugar levels. (White rice has a high glycemic index at around 73, while brown rice is considered a medium glycemic index at around 63.)
With all that in mind, Rifkin is generally a fan of alternative rice products. “The benefits of chickpea is the protein and vitamin and mineral content, which traditional white rice can lack, as well as brown rice in the protein category,” she says. “Chickpeas are especially rich in calcium, iron, folic acid, phosphorus, and fiber,” she says, adding that the legume is also higher in fiber and lower in carbohydrates than traditional rice.
Both RightRice and TJ’s use lentil flour in their products, which Rifkin says has a similar nutritional profile to chickpeas plus the added benefit of polyphenols—plant compounds that are linked to good heart health. “Lentils are also rich in zinc to promote immunity,” she adds. She also has no complains about RightRice’s diverse blend. “With the colorful array of beans here, you have more flavors, more nutrition, and more long term benefits,” she says.
Because all the alternative rice options earned bragging rights, Rifkin says not to stress out over which one is the overall healthiest; while they have different nutritional profiles, they’re all good for you in their own ways. “Instead, focus on texture, taste, and which one you like best,” she says.
However, Rifkin recommends easing into eating alternative rice. “If legumes aren’t already part of your diet, you may want to start by blending it with traditional rice,” she says. This is because the fiber content in the alternatives may be higher than what you’re used to consuming all at once, so if your body isn’t used to digesting a big serving of fiber, it could cause some, ahem, digestive distress.
This is one comparison game where there really are no losers; whatever choice you make is a healthy win. In fact, don’t act surprise when this alternative trend goes mainstream.
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