If you drop by our product development shop in Seattle this summer, you may spot some of our technicians painstakingly combing through samples of rice, sorting what looks like a few stray black grains from among the white.
Actually, the mix of white grains to black is far from random—it’s 100 to 1 by careful design.
The shop technicians are testing one of their latest projects: a cherry red rice blender that looks and sounds like a miniature cement mixer and promises to bring food fortification common in urban settings to rural families in developing countries. You can see how the blender adds fortified rice to traditional rice in this short video.
And that, says Carmen Forsman, who works with our rice fortification group, could mean better nutrition for people at risk of micronutrient deficiencies that encourage disease, stunt physical and cognitive development, and reduce the productivity of entire villages.
Power in a grain
Adding micronutrients like iron, folic acid, or zinc to staple foods is one of the most cost-effective and least disruptive ways to address malnutrition. It doesn’t require people to change their diet or behavior; instead, they get a significant portion of the micronutrients they need in foods they already eat every day.
PATH’s Ultra Rice® fortification technology packs vitamins and minerals into rice-shaped “grains” made from rice flour. Blend the fortified grains with traditional rice, and you’ve got a product that delivers essential micronutrients in a package that feels, smells, and tastes nearly identical to traditional rice.
Micronutrients for everybody
Staple foods are usually fortified at an industrial scale, Carmen explains, but rice is different. In rural areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, subsistence farmers typically bring their rice to the village mill for processing. The village mill usually isn’t equipped to fortify rice—at least, not unless they have a small-scale rice blender.
So far, Carmen and her colleagues have tested the blender, which they estimate will cost about US$300 per unit, in Nicaragua and Bangladesh. Families there said they’d pay a small additional fee to mill the rice that “will help your children grow,” which would allow village millers to recoup their investment in about a year.
A future in fortification
After testing the machine in Seattle to ensure the electronics are reliable and the blend is right (hence all that grain counting), the team plans to deploy 32 blenders in northern Vietnam for further field testing this fall. The team will monitor them for a year and evaluate their performance.
And then, says Carmen, “We’re going to take them to new markets.”
“There are so many countries that are interested in this technology,” she says, “India, Tanzania, Nicaragua as well . . . The wonderful thing is this machine is really going to enable subsistence farmers to fortify their staple food. And that’s going to affect a huge population that, right now, isn’t receiving the benefits of fortification.”