A new way of eating rice may revolutionize the Japanese diet in the next century.

The flavor and potential health benefits of “germinated brown rice” have gradually attracted public attention, challenging the longtime, deep-seated prejudice against brown rice.

Germinated rice is brown rice soaked in water until it just begins to bud. The outer bran layer becomes soft and more prone to water absorbtion, making it easier to cook. Enzymes produced during the budding process break down sugar and protein, giving the rice a sweet flavor.

What’s more, the germinated rice may enhance brain functions and reduce levels of lipids, or fats, in the blood, experts say.

Studies have found that germinated brown rice contains three times as much gamma aminobutyric acid, an amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter, as conventional brown rice, and five times as much as white rice.

Known to promote blood flow in the brain, the chemical has long been used for treating the aftereffects of brain injuries and strokes. It is also known to help stabilize blood pressure and reduce lipid levels in the blood.

“In addition, compared to ordinary brown rice, germinated brown rice is twice as rich in lysine, one of the essential amino acids that makes proteins in the body and contains a higher level of soluble fiber. Dietary fiber has been found to be more beneficial in its soluble form,” says Kenichi Otsubo, head of the National Food Research Institute’s cereal laboratory. “Now, we’re planning to do further studies to clinically confirm its health benefits.”

For a long time, the Japanese have been fanatic about white rice, or ginshari. Many say they don’t need anything else if they have a bowl of white rice and pickled vegetables. Magazine articles often feature the best way to cook white rice, dishes that go best with white rice, and where to buy the year’s best crop.

Brown rice tends to remind the wartime generation of the food scarcities in the postwar period, and is often treated with disdain. White rice is considered a symbol of prosperity; brown rice, conversely, suggests poverty.

From a nutritional standpoint, however, experts agree that it is clearly better to eat unpolished rice. The outer bran layer of the rice grain, which is removed during the milling process, is rich in fiber, iron, vitamins and minerals.

Brown rice has five times as much vitamin B as white rice. Finicky eaters who favored milled white rice during the Edo Period learned this firsthand, when vitamin B deficiencies caused a high incidence of beriberi.

Fiber is also dramatically higher in brown rice; a bowl of brown rice contains about 5 grams of fiber, nine times more than the same amount of white rice. Studies have shown that the nutrient helps prevent major diseases such as gastrointestinal cancers and heart disease.

As people become more health conscious, the benefits of brown rice have been more widely recognized. Still, its chewy texture and the fact that many electric rice cookers are unable to cook brown rice properly have continued to restrict its popularity.

Germinated brown rice, however, can easily be cooked in a rice cooker, giving it added appeal for people who have little time to prepare meals.

The town of Mino in Kagawa Prefecture, has encouraged its residents to consume germinated brown rice to promote health.

“Children now say they prefer the taste of brown rice. It’s especially good as a rice ball or porridge or when eaten with curry,” said town official Kosei Fujita. “And health checkups of a number of residents showed improved liver functions and lower blood cholesterol levels.”

Brown rice can be germinated at home, Otsubo says, but the process is time-consuming. One method is to soak brown rice in 30 C water for about 20-22 hours, using special electric appliances which are available from natural food companies and in some rice-producing towns such as Mino.

Soaking brown rice in cold water for two to three days is another way, but Otsubo advises changing the water frequently to prevent bacterial infestations.

Prepackaged germinated brown rice is appearing in health-food stores and supermarkets, though. Health-food giant Fancl Corp. put the product on the market in January, in cooperation with Nagano-based Domer Corp.

Domer and the National Food Research Institute jointly studied nutritional changes in brown rice during germination and found how to prevent the budding from proceeding too far, damaging flavor and reducing nutritional levels. They have applied for patents in five countries.

“We’ve always thought rice was all set for cooking when harvested, dried and threshed. But it’s not ripe yet, so to speak. Rice reaches its best state as a food during germination,” says Domer president Kikuichi Tsukahara.

“Tremendous changes would occur in our health if we lived on germinated brown rice.”