Have you ever tasted our traditional rice? Don’t you know that we owned more than 2000 traditional rice varieties and that our ancient generations mainly fed only on these native varieties? Our past generations had never experienced diabetes, blood pressure and heart attacks and other non communicable diseases because their healthy environment, dietary habits and lifestyle safeguarded them. But with time, our health has deteriorated mainly due to the consumption of unhealthy diets. Because of these developments, unfortunately we are deliberately loosing most of our valuable food varieties which have nutritional and medicinal values. As a result we are suffering from bad health conditions. According to statistics, the extent of the traditional rice in our country is nearly 0.83 % from the total cultivated area of rice. Actually this is such a disappointing fact regarding our nation since we are associated with a long agricultural history. We depend on polished, non-nutritious rice by neglecting our own precious assets. I think we are not too late to restore our healthy feeding habits with our inestimable indigenous rice because, nutrient rich food plays a critical role in safeguarding women and children from nutrient deficiencies.
Traditional rice varieties
As the staple food, rice has been performing an amazing role in our country. According to the historical evidences, over 2000 different kinds of rice varieties were cultivated all over the country. Almost all those traditional rice varieties were organically grown which relied on ecofriendly techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost, biological pest control and ancient irrigation systems for a sustained water supply. Those methods have preserved the nutritional values and environmental sustainability since there is zero usage of agrochemicals and inorganic fertilizer. A few of the popular traditional rice varieties are Suwendel, Sudu heenati, Kalu heenati, Pachchaperumal, Pokkali, Gurusinghe wee, Kahawanu, Sudu murunga, Unakola samba, Nilkanda, Ma wee, Kurulu thuda etc.
Our traditional rice has higher nutritional values, different texture, appearance, aroma and taste compared to improved rice. But native varieties are low in yield. Therefore, our people try to discover improved varieties with high yield through genetic modification of existing varieties. But with this genetic modification indigenous varieties would lose their nutritional and medicinal properties. In 2010, the Department of Agriculture released 67 improved rice varieties for different agro ecological conditions.
Some epidemiological studies have indicated that the consumption of whole grains rather than the refined grains have varieties of health benefits since whole grains are rich sources of nutrients and phytochemicals such as antioxidants, dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and fat. Most of these nutrients and phytochemicals are present in the outer layers of the grain and thus the grain refining process leads to a significant loss of these components. These nutrients and bio active compounds are important in the prevention and dietary management of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory diseases and obesity. Previous studies have recommended whole grains of Ma Wee to get considerable amount of recommended daily dietary protein intake for healthy individuals. Studies conducted on antioxidant properties of traditional rice varieties of Sri Lanka have shown that red rice had significantly high antioxidant properties compared with white rice.
The major importance of these traditional varieties are its’ medicinal and nutritional values. According to indigenous medicinal records, traditional doctors have used these native varieties for the preparing of various formulations of herbal medicines. Heenati group is nominated as the mostly used, largely due to the indigenous medicines within. Kalu heenati is the most popular variety in terms of medicines. Moreover, heenati was formulated with various juices to treat diabetic patients while cooked rice of “El Wee” varieties was used to feed pregnant mothers and also infants due to its’ easy digestibility and high nutritious values. Furthermore, previous research studies discovered high antioxidant, anti- amylase, anti - glycation and anti-inflammatory properties and nutritional composition of 25 Sri Lankan native rice varieties by comparing with improved varieties.
Medicinal and nutritional values
1. Suwendel- Contains more carbohydrate, vitamin, fat and micro nutrients. This variety is specially recommended for hard working people. It promotes fair and glowing skin, improves the functioning of the excretory system, enhances the male sexual potency and helps control diabetes, ulcers and constipation. And also it reduces high blood pressure while inducing the nervous system of the human body, specially the nerve cells connected to the eyes and the brain.
2. Rath el - Suitable to control cirrhosis, virus fever, skin rashes, diabetes, diseases in urinary system and prevents the formation of stones in the urinary system.
3. Pachchaperumal - Contains more proteins, vitamins, micro nutrients and the grain is rich in antioxidant agents. It helps to cool the body, increases the production of insulin and reduces the production of thyroxin in the body, aids the proper function of excretory system and production of some enzymes and hormones which are needed for the development of red blood cells. In addition it is good for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure.
4. Kalu heenati - Rich in minerals and micro nutrients such as iron and zinc and recommended for lactating mothers for daily consumption due to its nutritional value. It enhances immunity, physical strength and male sexual potency. And also its high fiber content helps regulate bowel movement (for example if there is constipation). Moreover, in ancient time, this variety was used as a medicine for diarrhea, diabetes and to lower cholesterol.
5. Rathu heenati - Grain is rich in iron, zinc and natural antioxidents. It contains more fats. This variety is highly recommended for expecting mothers as well as the first meal of infants while it can be used to treat hepatitis and diarrhea patients.
6. Sudu heenati- Has high nutritional and medicinal values and is rich in vitamin E, iron, zinc and other natural antioxidants. Studies have proved that this variety is suitable for the treatment of inflammations, diabetes, cancer, neurological diseases, cholesterol, constipation, oxidative stress and helps to improve the human immune system.
In conclusion, present and new generations of our country are increasingly becoming lethargic, do less fitness and are prone to illness due to their less nutritious diets. These diets are poor in essential nutrients. Rice is our main diet and it is very important to have a healthy life. In the past, our ancestors were fed on a diet comprising precious rice varieties which are loaded with high nutrition and medicinal values. But with the revolution of science and technology, genetically improved new rice varieties are being introduced with main consideration being the high yield. With these new varieties, the current Sri Lankan generation is moving away from our traditional rice varieties. As a result of consuming these new rice varieties which are less nutritious people are suffering with malnutrition problems and other non-communicable diseases. We have enough time to change our unhealthy diet with nutritious meals which were used by our ancient generations. Now our children are highly vulnerable to illnesses and suffer from malnutrition problems. We can protect them from frequent sicknesses to some extent by utilizing our native rice varieties since some indigenous rice has the ability to improve human immune system and provides good nutrition as well as helps to prevent non-communicable diseases through better dietary management.
The writer holds a MSc. Degree in Industrial and Environmental Chemistry from the University of Kelaniya and BSc. Food Production and Technology Management Degree from the Wayamba University of Sri Lanka.