In a word, "versatility" defines rice and stands out as the No. 1 reason the grain is generating interest during a period of time when consumers are on the lookout for inexpensive food options that provide variety.

In a report issued earlier this summer on side dishes, Chicago-based Mintel International Group Ltd. identified rice as the largest sales gainer during the timeframe spanning 2006-08, with sales climbing a shade more than 20% during the period. According to Mintel, the growth is impressive given rice’s position as the largest segment within the side dish category with annual sales of approximately $1.4 billion. The next closest side dish segment is macaroni and cheese, with sales of about $741 million, according to Mintel.

Just as impressive is the fact rice is one of the few side dish segments to grow sales in each of the past five years, Mintel said.

The reasons for rice’s inclusion in side dishes are manifold, but primarily it all comes back to versatility, where rice is considered a good accompaniment to vegetables, lean meats, seafood, beans and soyfoods. Rice also is versatile enough to serve as a main course carrier, and is highly digestible and the least allergenic of all grains.

Rice is seen as an inexpensive way to "fill up the plate or bulk up a meal," according to Mintel, and also has benefited from the growth of the Hispanic market, which has exhibited a tendency to eat rice once a week or more often.

Ready-to-serve rules

Within the rice category, dry rice and dry rice mixes account for approximately three-fourths of rice sales, according to Mintel. But it is the third part of the category — ready-to-serve — that is growing the fastest and appears to be leading the way in innovation.

In the 52 weeks ended March 22, McLean, Va.-based Mars, Inc.’s Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice ready-to-serve rice posted sales of $78 million, up 18% from $66 million in the 52 weeks ended March 23, 2008, according to Mintel. The company’s Uncle Ben’s Ready Whole Grain Medley ready-to-serve product posted sales of $16 million in the most recent period, up 24% from the same period a year earlier. In addition to its convenience factor, the latter product stands out as an example of how interest in whole grains is playing out in the category.

Exemplifying the mounting interest in the ready-to-serve market, sales of Riviana Foods Inc.’s Success ready-to-serve rice jumped 159% to $12 million in the 52 weeks ended March 22. The Success product was introduced in 2006 by Houston-based Riviana.

Growth in the category is not limited to the larger players, either. Lundberg Family Farms, Richvale, Calif., late last year introduced Heat & Eat Brown Rice Bowls, which are precooked and ready in seconds. The product comes in three varieties: short grain brown, long grain brown and Countrywild Brown rice.

"Heat & Eat Brown Rice Bowls are a great-tasting alternative for those who demand both wholesome, healthy food and heat-and-eat convenience," said Grant Lundberg, chief executive officer. "We created these bowls for consumers who want healthy brown rice quickly."

The bowls qualify as "heart healthy" according to the Food and Drug Administration and are available in natural foods stores and supermarkets. The bowls also carry the 100% Whole Grain Stamp from the Whole Grains Council. With 84 grams or more of whole grains per serving, the Lundberg products are part of a growing number of rice products promoting whole grain benefits.

According to the W.G.C.’s web site, nearly 80 side dishes containing rice feature the Whole Grain Stamp.

"Recent data from the NPD group show that in 2008, 57% of whole grains are eaten at breakfast, and another 17% as snacks," said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways and the W.G.C. "Smart companies have realized this leaves the window wide open for products like grain side dishes, that can target the dinner plate. We’re delighted, as this development is right in line with our slogan of ‘whole grains at every meal.’"

Made in the U.S.A.

Marketing rice as "heart healthy" as has been done with the Lundberg Family’s line of products has been a common strategy for makers of rice products in recent years. Now, a different marketing strategy is being implemented thanks to the USA Rice Federation, Arlington, Va. The group has developed a new logo to help consumers identify and choose U.S.-grown rice.

Unveiled in June 2008, the registered mark was created to help consumers and food service professionals identify and choose 100% U.S.-grown rice. The logo is licensed for use by companies on packaging containing rice grown and packaged in the United States for domestic and worldwide markets. Since being made available for licensing a little over a year ago, companies representing 72% of total domestic rice shipments have licensed the logo, according to the USA Rice Federation.

In making its case to industry members to use the logo, the USA Rice Federation said it provides the industry with a "news hook" to promote the quality, advantages and benefits of U.S.-grown rice. In addition, the logo helps respond to consumer concerns about the safety and origins of their food, and interest in local, sustainable agriculture.