New Fortified Rice in Sri Lanka Could Offer Worldwide Relief for Micronutrient-Depleted Populations
Haily Senevirathne was always interested in science and as a child dreamed of working in a research laboratory. Some years later, she is a researcher and the co-inventor of a patented process able to fortify rice with vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients, and has the potential to help the malnutrition plague in the world.
With a master's in science and technology, Haily went on to study nutrition for her master's and, passionate about her subject, started her own small research lab at her home after her study to do independent research and development for the industry. She later joined the Wayaba University of Sri Lanka as a Lecturer.
Rice is a staple food in Sri Lanka and many developing countries. Half of the world’s population relies on rice, she said. However, rice loses most of its nutritional value during processing, in particular when the bran layer is removed during polishing to satisfy the market demands for white rice. What remains, Haily said, is mainly starch without many nutritional benefits, and developing country populations usually suffer from acute micronutrient deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, Vitamin Bs, Iron, and Zinc. When it comes to rice fortification, Haily explained, there are different technologies: bio-fortification, which involves gene modification, pre-harvest fortification, and post-harvest fortification, including dusting, coating, and extrusion. However, most of those technologies have not achieved the expected results, with recognized drawbacks, such as uneven distribution of fortificants leading to potential overconsumption or under consumption of fortificants, low retention rates due to pre-cook washing, and segregation of fortified rice kernels during handling, she said.
The first patented technology was developed by Haily and her co-inventors Manju Gunawardana and Ananda Hettiarachchy. Haily started the research at the University of Peradeniya, as a part of her academic program. The technology allows a uniform distribution of nutrients in the rice, restoring its initial nutritional value and more, which will resist polishing, pre-cook washing, and cooking.
A subsequent innovative technology developed at the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology, pending patent approval, goes to the next level by introducing additional nutrients, such as phytochemicals and extra vitamins and minerals, not originally present in rice.
In Sri Lanka, the most consumed rice is “parboiled rice”. The processing technique involves soaking the paddy (rice with the husk) at elevated temperatures, then applying steam before drying it. The technique developed by the three co-inventors slightly modifies this process and comes at a lower price than other rice fortification techniques. While the rice is soaked in water, they use vacuum-assisted soaking and water-soluble minerals. Removing all the gas trapped in the rice husks makes it easier for the fortificants to get at the heart of the rice kernels, past the bran layer.
In the next stage, when the rice is steamed, the structure of the starch becomes softer and combines with the nutrients, which during the drying process are entrapped within each kernel.
After this soaking and drying process, the rice is dehusked and polished without affecting the nutrients. According to Haily, the research found that after the rice is exposed to boiling water and cooked, the nutrient loss remains below 10 percent.
“We wanted a technology that applies to all rice, not only parboiled rice,” Haily said, explaining that they developed a new technology, which allows the use of raw rice that can be bought from the market. With this technology, the soaking is slightly different but is based on the infusion of water-soluble and insoluble nutrients, as with the parboiled rice vacuum-assisted soaking.
“With this new technology, we are capable of adding a vast number of nutrients, which have not been used in any previous technology,” Haily said.
Health Gold Fortified Rice comes in various vitamins/minerals enhancements: Zinc; catechins (anti-oxidant); iron; cinnamon; curcumin; and bacopa & centella, in a choice of parboiled and raw rice. Health Gold Fortified Rice was formally introduced to the Sri Lankan market in August.
Customers pay approximately 5-15% more for parboiled and mineral fortified rice and some 15-30% for the other types of enriched rice and can find the Health Gold Fortified Rice in supermarkets and stores.
With a technology being patented in seven countries and under prosecution in five others through the WIPO Patent Cooperation Treaty, and another patent pending, the company formed by the three co-inventors, Rachmin Innovations pvt ltd, attracted the attention of investors. In 2020, Rachmin Innovations entered into a Joint Venture with LOLC Advanced Technologies pvt ltd, a leading research and development company in Sri Lanka, to form Fortigrains Lanka pvt ltd. Health Gold Fortified Rice is marketed under the brand “Brown and Company PLC, a company of LOLC group.
Fortigrains Lanka also drew the attention of the Path Foundation with the recommendation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Discussions are ongoing with several interested parties to see how Fortigrains Lanka’s fortified rice can serve malnourished populations around the globe, said Haily.
She added that the company is working with the Health Ministry of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Standards Institution to develop national policies and product standards for Fortigrains Lanka’s fortified rice products.
For the moment, the company uses local rice varieties but according to Haily, the technology can work on any variety of rice.
The parboiled fortified rice is processed in Polonnaruwa for its proximity to rice mills. A plant in Colombo produces both parboiled rice and raw fortified rice. The company which currently has 20 employees produces one ton of fortified rice every six hours.
“We now need to place the product on the international market because nutritional problems are all around the world,” Haily said. The company will be exporting both parboiled and raw fortified rice, and in a few months, a new parboiled fortified rice plant is expected to be constructed in another area in Sri Lanka. In the future, Fortigrains Lanka hopes to manufacture fortified rice in other countries and extend the technology to several varieties.
Both patents are covering not only rice, Haily explained. The possibility of applying and scaling up the technology to other grains, such as wheat, will be evaluated in the future by the Research and Development team. “If we have the capacity to expand, we would like to offer other fortified grains as well,” she said.