Dr. Stewart setting up her exhibit at Honolulu’s Rice Festival.
Rice provides up to 80 percent of people’s daily caloric intake in parts of Southeast Asia. Hawai‘i, while not that extreme, is a bastion of rice-mania in its own right: The versatile grain finds its way into musubi, sushi, mochi, arare, and much more. It’s as comfortable fried with kimchi as it is providing a pillowy base for a loco moco. And no plate lunch would be complete without those two all-important scoops.
Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences researcher Maria Stewart is hoping to use locals’ love of rice to improve their diets—and their health. Hawai‘i has rates of diabetes higher than the national average: 20 percent of the population between the ages of 65 and 74, and 7 percent of the total population. It’s well understood that diet can affect diabetes, as well as a host of other diseases and conditions, both positively and negatively, and a food so commonly eaten has the potential to reach a large segment of the populace.
In her research project The Rice Paradox: Identifying the Ideal Rice for Glycemic Control and Weight Loss, Dr. Stewart looks at a type of fiber in rice called resistant starch (RS). In particular, she’s interested in high-amylose rice, which contains up to 4 times as much RS as more common types like short-grain rice. Foods with greater amounts of resistant starch decrease blood glucose and insulin concentrations, so eating them can actually help some diabetics.
Dr. Stewart has charted the RS content of different types of rice and is now researching the physiological effects. In connection with Queens Medical Center, she feeds volunteers varieties of rice with differing percentages of resistant starch; then she measures their blood glucose and insulin—and their satiety, or how full they feel. She predicts that high-amylose rice, if substituted for the classic types and eaten with the same frequency, could be an effective diet therapy for those with type 2 diabetes.
And this finding could be good news on so many levels. Imagine rolling up to Rainbow Drive-In and saying, “I gotta watch my health—give me one hamburger steak plate...with extra rice.”