[Disclosure: My trip was funded by Mars Food on behalf of Uncle Ben’s but I was not paid to write this post. My comments below are all mine.]
Working as a dietitian and food communicator for close to 20 years (gah!), I’ve been lucky enough to meet many hard-working farmers and observe first hand how food is grown and harvested all over America.
But I was especially excited for this trip to Memphis, TN and Greenville, MS to see rice farming in action and travel to a part of the country I’ve never visited before.
Being from the North, I’ve seen endless fields of corn, wheat, soybeans and oats when it comes to grain crops but clearly, the climate up here is not ideal for rice growing. I wasn’t even sure what a rice plant looked like (I had visions of Southeast Asian rice paddies) so I knew I was going to learn a lot.
And I did.
10 Cool Things I Learned About Rice, Mars Food and Uncle Ben’s:
1) 90% of rice from North America is grown in the Mississippi Delta region – That is a large amount of crop grown in a very specific area. The color of the rice fields this time of year (mid-June) is a gorgeous green.
2) All rice starts out as brown rice – Well, I did know this subconsciously but I had to think it through. The non-edible hull of the rice has to be cracked to get to the kernel. If you want brown rice, the bran is kept intact, which contains fiber and most of the vitamins and minerals found naturally in rice. If you want white rice, the bran is removed. (Note: white rice is enriched with some of those vitamins and minerals lost in the milling process.)
Upper photo: rice in its hull, lower left: bran, lower right: white rice
Trying to break the rice hull by hand – it’s really tough to do!
3) Rice is a critical diet staple for half of the Earth’s population! That means about 3.7 billion people around the world depend on rice to feed them and their families.
4) Alternative Wetting Drying (AWD) is a newer rice farming practice that saves water, lowers greenhouse gas emissions and increases yield. Instead of the traditional method of flooding rice fields, many rice farmers now alternate between watering and allowing fields to dry for up to 10 days before watering again.
Wetting cycle of AWD watering process
5) Mars Food is committed to having 100% sustainably sourced rice by 2020. What does that mean exactly? Well, Mars Food is a member of the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), a rice industry partnership created by the UN and International Rice Research Institute. This platform has established 46 sustainable standard requirements for using less water, releasing fewer GHG emissions, improving farmer income, fostering human rights among workers and more.
6) Mars Food will reduce sodium levels by 20% in all their food products – including Uncle Ben’s – in the next 5 years. This is on top of sodium reductions that have already be implemented.10 Things I Learned on @UncleBens #rice tour + 5 fav rice recipes @tspbasil #sponsoredtravel Click To Tweet
7) Uncle Ben’s Rice got its name from a Texas farmer. In the 1940s, Uncle Ben grew such a high quality of rice, it became the standard for the industry. However, the famous face on packages is actually the image of a chef and waiter from Chicago named Fred Brown.
8) Since it’s launch in 2012, the Ben’s Beginners Cooking Contest has donated almost $500,000 to schools. Each year the contest brings more kids and their families together into kitchens across the U.S. and the contest winners’ schools get cafeteria makeovers. This year’s contest is launching on August 16, 2016 –> more info here.
9) Seeds of Change (the organic seed and food company owned by Mars Food) has a grant program to support school gardens. Close to $1 million in grant money has gone to 70 schools to date – how cool is that?
10) Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice and Seeds of Change ready-to-heat pouches are my new pantry staples. Now, I have always loved rice but the main reason I don’t eat it as often as other whole grains is because it takes so long to cook brown rice (my preference since it’s a whole grain.)
But not anymore.
There are dozens of rice combinations and flavors in the Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice and Seeds of Change line that take only 90 seconds to heat in the microwave! This is a huge time saver especially since brown rice usually takes about 40 minutes to cook. We got to taste many of these ready-to-heat rices during the daily quality control tasting in the test kitchens at Uncle Ben’s Greenville plant.
Now, there’s a wide range in sodium levels in these products (anywhere from 0 to 710 milligrams per serving) which is why I was happy that Mars is dedicated to reducing sodium further over the next few years. My current favs are the Brown Basmati Rice and Brown, Red & Black Rice pouches.
Below I’ve pulled 5 favorite rice dishes I’ve posted over the years and matched them an Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice brown rice product so you can shave a good 30 minutes from your recipe prep time!
Breakfast Rice Bowl with Dried Plums, Pears and Almonds
Pair with Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice Whole Grain Brown (contains 15 mg sodium per serving)
Chinese Style Baked Lemon Chicken with Sesame Brown Rice
Pair with Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice Brown Basmati (contains 0 mg sodium per serving)
Easy Louisiana Red Beans and Brown Rice
Pair with Uncle Ben’s Brown, Red & Black Rice (contains 380 mg sodium per serving)
Honey Drizzled Chicken Skewers with Green Rice
Pair with Seeds of Change Brown & Red Rice with Chia & Kale (contains 300 mg sodium per serving)
Mango Coconut Rice with Candied Ginger
Pair with Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice Whole Grain Brown
I want to give a big thank you to the team at Porter Novelli, the Mars Food staff, the Uncle Ben’s Greenville plant staff and our rice farmer hosts at Delta Seed!
Have you ever seen rice grown? Do you like Uncle Ben’s rice? What’s your or your family’s favorite rice dish?
Monday 1st of August 2016
Great question! Seeds of Change is all organic and there's more of a variety of grain mixes offered with their ready-to-heat pouches :)
Jessica @ Nutritioulicious
Monday 1st of August 2016
Thanks for sharing what you learned Deanna! I love trips like these - always learn so much and have a new appreciation for the food we eat and how it gets to our tables. I'll have to look for some of these packets. I didn't know Seeds of Change was owned by Mars. How are their products different from the Uncle Ben's line?
Tuesday 26th of July 2016
Uncle Ben's microwave brown rice is one of my favorites, it's perfect for busy nights! I love farm tours! Always so interesting to get a behind the scenes look, great recap!
Monday 25th of July 2016
I love the Seeds of Change packets. I had no clue has a grant program to support school gardens! so cool to hear!
Monday 25th of July 2016
Thanks for the informative post. I glad to hear that Mars is implementing measures to produce the rice in a "greener" manner. I have heard so much in the last couple of years regarding the issue of arsenic in rice and wondered if they covered that at all. I have to admit that issue has caused me to decrease my rice intake by a great deal. Thanks!
Monday 25th of July 2016
That's a great question, Jacquie, and yes, it was discussed at length. Arsenic levels in rice continue to be a concern and the FDA continues to analyze different rice varieties for arsenic levels. But it's tricky as arsenic levels greatly vary depending on many factors including where the rice is grown, how much water is used, the weather when it was grown, the varietal of the rice. My take away on the issue is similar to how I look at the fish/mercury issue - unless you are eating rice every single day, I think the health benefits outweigh any negative risks and I'm for eating a variety of whole grains - not solely rice - or quinoa - or wheat - or oats, etc.