Health-conscious consumers, already armed with fish oil and oat bran, are about to get another weapon in the battle against high cholesterol - rice bran.
Recent studies have shown rice bran apparently has the same cholesterol-fighting qualities as oat bran, but tastes better."It has a naturally sweeter taste, so it differs from oat bran in that it's not quite like eating cardboard," said Robin Saunders, a U.S. Department of Agriculture food researcher.
In tests on hamsters, rice bran reduced blood cholesterol by 15 percent, or about the same amount as oat bran, according to Saunders. Less rice bran was needed to achieve the same results as oat bran, he added.
An Australian study showed similar results in humans, as have earlier studies in India and Japan, where rice is the staple of the human diet, Saunders told Reuters.
High cholesterol levels contribute to heart disease, according to medical researchers.
Rice bran is a thin outer layer of plant tissue that typically is milled off during the processing of the familiar white rice kernel.
Soluble fiber, or beta-glucan, is the ingredient in oat bran that cuts cholesterol. In rice bran, oil is thought to be the cholesterol-fighting component, Saunders said.
More research is being conducted to further prove the links between rice bran and lower cholesterol, but the rice industry has seen enough to convince it that rice bran is a product whose time has come.
"We're anticipating that the brown rice and rice bran market is about to explode," said John Hunnel, director of research at Riviana Foods Inc., a Houston-based rice marketer.
Riviana already has begun developing new products it hopes to have on grocery shelves in the near future, said Hunnel.
"We've got a home economist who already has 75 recipes with rice bran and they are all pretty tasty," he said.
Hunnell said that rice bran has not been widely available as a consumer product. Its primary use has been in multi-grain breads popular in health food stores and as an animal food.
"This, of course, is changing," Hunnell said.
The hope is that rice bran will become the oat bran of the future, Hunnell said.
Cholesterol-conscious consumers have embraced oat bran with a passion since a series of articles and diet books have come out extolling its cholesterol-fighting qualities.
According to SAMI, a market research firm that tracks the supermarket industry, sales of oat bran cereals such as Quaker Oat Bran and Kellogg's Cracklin' Oat Bran, rose 215 percent to $109.5 million last year.
Oat prices have climbed, too. According to industry analysts, a bushel of oats is expected to cost $2.80 this year, up from $1.56 a year ago.
"Prices for oat bran have gone through the roof," said Saunders.
Saunders said that while companies ready new products for the market, some of the best sources of rice bran now available are brown rice - white rice that is less refined so that the bran layer remains - and something called Vita-Fiber, a wheat germ-like product put out by a California health food company.
Consumers can expect more "miracle" grains to come into vogue in the near future.
"The next one would be barley bran," Saunders said. "There have already been studies showing it cuts cholesterol."