Rice: what can't it do? The stuff is so pervasive that it is the predominant food staple for more than half world. The Chinese word for rice is also the same word for food. In fact, both Toyota ("Bountiful Rice Field") and Honda ("Main Rice Field") have the humble foodstuff to thank for the etymology of their names.
But an earth-shattering rumor circulating throughout Asia for the past few years could change all that.
The rumor is that fake rice, made of a mixture of white and sweet potatoes—with a core of synthetic resin—is being sold as real rice. Oh, and there's this: if you eat it, it may very well kill you.
The story has circulated through Korea, China, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and now has made its way to Vietnam. The faux rice allegedly looks just like real rice, but stays hard even after it is cooked. In many versions of the tale, the resin is poisonous.
This is like telling Gwyneth Paltrow and her kooky-crazy Goopies that green juice is actually chock-full of cellulite-inducing toxins.
Or telling Gunnar, the creepy, elderly Icelandic dude you met on that MacGyver-themed cruise, that chocolate-covered black licorice is simply not available in the Bahamas. And good God, Gunnar, stop trying to momma-bird me that prune milk every night!
Anyway. Is this true? Is there fake rice circulating in Asia?
Authoritative, first-hand reports of rice made with a potato-resin combo are nonexistent. And most of the stories, including the recent one in Vietnam, quote officials denying the problem exists in their country.
That's not to say that that the problem of fake or tainted foods is unknown in Asia. Far from it. There are plenty of such reports. Rice tainted with cadmium and other metals—a result of China's pollution problem—has been the subject of a New York Times report, as have other tainted food problems: from bean sprouts to infant formula.
In fact, Global Times reports that 900 people were arrested for selling fake mutton in China. The meat wasn't mutton at all—it was this perfect trifecta: rat, fox, and mink meat. Back in 2004, dozens of children died from ingesting fake milk powder.
Heck, some Chinese food products are faker than a Hall and Oates cover band comprised solely of bakers called Pie-vate Eyes.
It's just that the fake rice story may be a myth. We don't know.
But, boy, has this story captured the public imagination in a nasty way. And if this is a myth, the myth-creators, whomever they may be, picked a subject sure to go straight to the heart of Asia.
Rice, after all, traces its humble roots back to 10,000 BC and is seen in most of Asia as not only life giving, but in the realm of the deities. And if you happen to think that the rest of the world is home-free to double-fist some onigiri and pound it down with a vat of horchata, think again.
A new bill introduced in the United States Congress on Thursday by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), takes aim directly at inorganic arsenic levels in domestic rice. If passed, the proposed bill would require the FDA to put in place a maximum permissible level of inorganic arsenic in rice and rice-related products.
Currently, the FDA has placed maximum permissible levels on both bottled water and apple juice, but most other food products, including rice, are not regulated federally for levels of inorganic arsenic. Extensive testing by Consumer Reports last November found that levels of inorganic arsenic in rice depended on the rice-type and that non-rice grains like quinoa and millet were less likely to have traces of inorganic arsenic.
Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, the Vietnam Food Administration, a watchdog group that polices the country's food safety, reassured the public this week that it was safe to eat rice. The organization "recommends that people should not panic" as the group has "not received any feedback on fake rice."
This isn't the first time a rice panic has swept that rice-loving nation. In 2011 and 2012 rumors of fake rice spread, but those rumors—and the new ones—have been dispelled by Dr. Nguyen Thanh Phong, head of the Vietnam Food Administration.
So eating a bowl of rice is unlikely to be the relaxing, nourishing, and warming experience it was for centuries. We'll all be worrying, whether it's warranted or not—about plastic resin, cadmium, arsenic—no matter where in the world we live.