All Rice: A Fine-Grained Look at the Filipino Staple

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First of two parts

Asians — including Filipinos — are particularly jealous about their rice habits. A typical Filipino meal will always have rice.

BRGY. DULAO, Bago City - The months ending in "ber," it is long held in Negros Occidental, are supposed to usher in prosperity or, to those working in its vast sugarcane fields, a brief respite from poverty.
BRGY. DULAO, Bago City – The months ending in “ber,” it is long held in Negros Occidental, are supposed to usher in prosperity or, to those working in its vast sugarcane fields, a brief respite from poverty. | Photp by Julius D. Mariveles

You can serve a Filipino with a buffet filled with different meats and vegetables at 12 noon, put some bread or potatoes in the mix to “complete” it and after that much eating, he or she may ask when lunch will be served.

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Because for most Filipinos, it is never a “real” meal without rice (some would even heap it on spaghetti).

The Filipinos’ love affair with rice has been subject of tropes and memes on those tropes. But all jests aside, it begs the question, what is with Filipinos and rice?

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Anthropological studies show that in precolonial Philippines, rice was not always the staple food of choice for Filipinos.

Rice was instead considered “luxury” or “prestige food”, prepared in festivals and offered usually to tribe chieftains as stated in the 2008 study by Aguilar, Filomeno V. Jr. titled Rice in the Filipino Diet and Culture.

Without getting into the detailed history as it is a story for another time, those who colonized the Philippines eventually introduced improved ways for agriculture and irrigation, and the increased availability of rice went from becoming a “luxury food” to a staple commodity through generations.

White rice has been a staple in so many Filipino households that it is inconceivable to think that once, it was considered a luxury food item. | Photo from Shutterstock
White rice has been a staple in so many Filipino households that it is inconceivable to think that once, it was considered a luxury food item. | Photo from Shutterstock
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This food had become embedded in Philippine history and culture that eventually the bodies of our ancestors have adapted to a rice diet and as it got passed down from generation to generation, surviving wars and the coming and going of colonizers, it has become hard to replace.

Currently, rice production in the Philippines is an important aspect of the country’s food supply and economy.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2010 Philippines was the ninth (9th) largest rice producer in the world, accounting for 2.8% of global rice production, although recently we’ve been importing rice and has since become somewhat of a problem for our farmers.

In 2018, the World Trade Organization approved an annual quota to limit these imports to protect local farmers, buying up to 805,200 tonnes of rice with a 35% import tariff.Filipinos: Empty without Rice Rice is not just a staple food in the Philippines but of over half the world’s population.

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It is the predominant dietary energy source for 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific, nine countries in the Americas and eight (8) countries in Africa. Rice provides twenty percent (20%) of the world’s dietary energy supply, while wheat supplies nineteen percent (19%) and corn five percent (5%), this is according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Two factors can be attributable to why Filipinos love rice so much. One, Filipinos depend on rice because it is a cheap source of carbohydrates that provides them with energy for their daily activities.

Two, the consumption of rice throughout Filipino culture and history has shaped the nation’s collective digestive systems and microbiomes to readily absorb this food source better than any other carbohydrate alternative. Rice is relatively accessible and cheap for Filipinos.

According to the Southeast Asian Regional Center and International Rice Research Institute the average Filipino consumes 119 kilograms of rice per year based on their 2010 studies.

They added that those in lower-income households eat more rice than the middle to upper-income groups, whose diets get more varied. Having a staple diet creates a feedback loop in our digestive system and its resident microbiota.

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According to a review article by Riley L. Hughes on Gut Microbiome published in Frontiers in Nutrition which cites various microbiome studies – our diet may dictate the contents of our microbiome and our microbiome in turn dictate our diet.

The topic of the microbiome is a broad science, and may possibly be even broader than nutrition and warrants its own separate topic but for the sake of this article, it will be explained as brief as possible.

Essentially, what people consume alters the types of microbiome they have to a certain extent, so in a sense, a group of people that are rice eaters for generations may have guts adapted to eating and digesting rice easier than other food sources.

This does not mean they cannot eat other food stuff, but their bodies are accustomed to rice better than any other food. The gut microbiome may have then have created memory signals to the brain if they have or have not eaten rice. Essentially giving rice an unconscious grip to a Filipinos’ diet. Note that the microbiome may be related to addictive behaviors.

UP NEXT: For part two, the article will tackle the health implications of the Filipinos’ rice-eating habits.

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