Rice and Gluten Intolerance

During my search for wheat substitutes for my coeliacs customers, I first looked at rice. Now in the western world we all know how to cook rice and serve it as a traditional accompaniment to fish dishes. As rice is the principal food for half of the world’s population, I decided to have a closer look into why and how rice and its flour make a good substitute for people with a sensitivity to the gliadin protein in gluten.

Rice is different to buckwheat, as it is a cereal. It is a plant of the Oriza family; native of the tropical and semi-tropical Indian sub-continent. It was domesticated in 7000 BC in the Yangtze river valley in China. It was brought to Europe via Persia and the Arabs who learned how to grow and cook it. The Moors first grew rice in Spain in the 8th Century, then it found its way to Sicily and Northern Italy in the 15th Century. It is the Spanish and Portuguese who introduced rice to the Americas in the 16th and 17th Century.
There are 100 000 distinct varieties of rice throughout the World. They all fall into one or two traditionally recognised subspecies of Oriza sativa. In Europe we are mostly familiar with the American long-grain rice, the short-grain type (for rice pudding) from China, Japan and Korea, the Arborio rice (risotto rice) from Italy, the brown rice that is a long-grain or short-grain unmilled type (wholemeal rice) and the red rice from the Camargue delta in France. Since the last 10 or 15 years, we can find those “fragrant” type of rice like the basmati from India and Pakistan, jasmine rice from Thailand and the US della rice. There are also the sticky rice from Northern Thailand and Laos and the wrongly named wild rice which is, in fact, the wholegrain of a distant relative, a cool climate type of water grass native of the Great Lakes region of North America.
Now let’s talk about rice flour. In the western world we are not too familiar with its uses. But in Asia it is traditionally used in a lot of various food preparations such as noodles, wrapping pastries, frying batters or steamed buns.

Rice flour is mainly made of starch, 90% of its overall constitution. It also contains 7% of proteins, 0.7% of fat and 2.3% of water. For coeliacs the most important constituent in flour is the protein content, so let’s have a closer look at the protein breakdown in rice flour. There are four different types of proteins classified by their solubility specifications. The first one is the water soluble albumin (10%), the second one is the water/salt soluble globulin (10%), then the acid soluble glutelins (75%) and finally, the alcohol soluble prolamins (5%). As you can see there is no gliadins nor glutenins. It is gluten free.
Rice flour is quite difficult to work with. First of all the lack of gluten makes it deficient in elastic capacities which are essential in bread making. It is also poor in water soluble proteins so it makes the absorption of water difficult. Nevertheless, this factor is interesting in the making of batters as they dry out faster when cooked. This quickly creates a shell that will protect the ingredients from the fats in which they are fried. And it is a healthier way of cooking fried food.
Still, rice flour is used to make gluten-free breads. This is made possible by the addition of xhantan* or guar*gum. These additives are polysaccharides which, basically, are molecules made of long chains of individual sugar units that makes the structure of carbohydrates. This is important to know because this type of additives are not suitable for diabetics.
These gums help the dough to gain elasticity and plasticity. They will also allow the mixture to catch CO2 from yeast or other leavening agent therefore raise to a relatively decent level. These types of breads will still have a much denser texture than wheat breads.
In conclusion, rice flour is mainly interesting as a substitute to wheat flour in the making of noodles and pasta dough as well as dumplings. It can also be interesting for the cooking of fritters and the making of wrapping pastry such as filo and struddle pastry. The Chinese even make oven chips with rice flour.

Here is a small brief about xanthan and guar gums. What they are and how they are produced. These types of additives are classified as thickening agents. Nowadays they are massively used by the food industry to thicken and stabalize the texture of sweets and pastries, processed meats, sauces, salad dressings, soups, ice-creams even mass produced breads. They are polysaccharides, which are long chains of individual sugar units. Basically they are what constitutes the main structure of all carbohydrates. Diabetics should be aware of such type of additives as they can increase the level of sugar in their blood.

*Xantan gum is a natural gum polysaccharides molecule produced by a biotechnological process involving the fermentation of glucose and sucrose by the Xanthomonas Campestris bacteria. It is also known as E 415.
*Guar gum is natural gum extracted from the guar bean (Cyamopsis Tetragonobola). This shrub is a native of India and Pakistan. It is also known as E 412


  1. jardini said,

    Great post I love aquarium :)

    on 04 April, 2007  

  2. Anonymous said,

    Excellent article :)

    on 06 January, 2009