Rice flour on rise as substitute for wheat in sweets

by Hiroko Nakata

The Swiss roll looks no different from any other at a cafe or patisserie. But take a bite and something in the texture — finer and chewier — proves looks can be deceiving. The difference? The roll is made from rice flour, not wheat.

With global wheat prices going through the roof and the gap between rice flour shrinking, an increasing number of retailers are producing sweets and breads made from rice flour.

What’s more, consumers are drawn to the products not simply as an alternative but also for their own merits. For one thing, the rice-flour products may even seem more filling.

“We have very good feedback from customers,” said Masahiko Yamazaki, a public relations manager at Starbucks Coffee Japan Ltd., a unit of Starbucks Corp. of the U.S., the world’s largest coffeehouse chain.

In June, Starbucks Japan rolled out a whipped cream-filled cake made of flour that is 95 percent nonglutinous rice and 5 percent glutinous. The fresh cream is made from milk from Hokkaido. They retail for ¥320.

“We’ve discovered once again the advantage of rice (as an ingredient in sweets),” Yamazaki said.

The rice-flour cake is just one of many original products Starbucks routinely develops for its 801 domestic outlets that are intended to be healthy, satisfy both Japanese and Western tastes and go well with coffee, the company said.

Yamazaki notes the dessert made from rice flour is good for people allergic to wheat.

Though Starbucks does not disclose sales figures for each product, Yamazaki said customers who have ordered the cake say they are surprised it is so soft and moist.

The Swiss roll has proved so popular that Starbucks has decided to keep selling it through the end of October instead of August as originally planned — and maybe even longer, he said.

Lawson Inc., Japan’s second-largest convenience store chain, has also developed original products made from rice flour. On July 29, it started selling three kinds of sweets — chiffon and steamed cakes, and bean-jam buns — for ¥130 to ¥150 at 2,500 outlets in the Kanto region.

Taking note of recent interest in the texture of soft rice cakes, Lawson started to develop products made of rice flour two years ago, said Kazuo Kimura, a senior manager in charge of public relations at Lawson.

“Consumer demand regarding the texture (of food) has changed over the past few years,” he said.

Because they have a tendency to shrivel and go stale too quickly, it wasn’t easy to develop the rice-flour buns, Kimura said. Solving the problem involved adding gluten and using very fine flour, he said.

Lawson also declined to reveal sales figures for the new products, but Kimura said the chain will start selling four rice-flour products Sept. 5 at its 9,600 outlets nationwide.

The retailer is also planning to broaden its lineup with noodles made from rice flour, Kimura said.

The government welcomes such moves in the food industry.

“The government has two goals regarding support for rice flour. One is to raise Japan’s food self-efficiency, and the other is to utilize rice fields,” said Yuuki Takeda, a deputy director at the rice policy planning division of the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry’s staple foods department.

Although rice is a traditional staple, domestic consumption has steadily declined as people have turned to Western foods. Consumption is now half its 1962 peak of 118.3 kg a year per person, according to the ministry.

Meanwhile, Japan imports most of its wheat, or 5.36 million tons a year, Takeda said.

As a result, the country’s food self-efficiency on a calorie basis stood at 40 percent in 2007, lowest among the industrialized nations.

“As for grains, self-efficiency is below 30 percent,” Takeda added.

To keep the price of rice high, the government has a long-standing policy of limiting production by providing subsidies to farmers who grow other crops in their rice paddies or simply let the fields lie fallow.

In this environment, the government is eager to see rice flour push up demand for rice and help raise the food self-efficiency rate.

In June, Liberal Democratic Party members set up a group to promote breads and noodles made from rice flour.

Despite the efforts of policymakers, the food industry faces hurdles, such as the current limited supply of rice flour, industry sources said.

Just 6,000 tons of rice flour, originally only used to make such traditional Japanese sweets as dumplings, were consumed in fiscal 2006. That compares with the 1.58 million tons of wheat flour used to make breads in fiscal 2005.

“There’s no supply problem in the short term, but for the longer term I’m worried about the shortage of rice flour,” said Lawson’s Kimura, noting that supply may not keep pace with a jump in consumption as the number of rice farmers declines.