Many UK consumers now recognise that basmati is best with a bhuna, but the rice also ends up with chilli and Western food too.

The UK is the largest user of basmati rice in the EU and, although demand is driven by our large Indian and Pakistani communities, its popularity is growing in the mainstream population.

Basmati producers are trying to attract this mainstream audience. Indo European Foods, owner of the Kohinoor brand, for example, has launched a 5kg foil-wrapped bag of basmati into Tesco as a smaller version of its most popular, but bulky, 10kg packs. "We're trying to get across the message that basmati rice is a high-quality product but find that mainstream consumers aren't really informed about different grades - they believe rice is just rice," says Dave Roberts, chief operating officer.

But it seems that buying basmati is not always a guarantee of high quality. The issue of adulterated rice reared its head in 2003 when a Food Standards Agency survey found samples with non-basmati content.

Earlier this year, rice importers Surya Rice and Basmati Rice (UK) were found to be supplying batches that contained too much non-basmati rice.

Damian Testa, secretary general of the Rice Association, admits there have been successful prosecutions for companies that have mixed non-basmati rice into their product, but explains that some were using an old industry standard. He is conscious that the problem could discourage sales.

"Ethnic communities in particular know about the issue. Mainstream consumers would be less aware, but they still want to get what they pay for," he says.

The association introduced a new code of practice earlier this year, which states that non-basmati rice must not exceed 7% of a batch.

"The more companies are aware that they can be prosecuted, the more likely they are to comply," says Testa. Previously there wasn't an official deterrent."

A recent survey by the association found that 37 samples out of 43 complied with the code. It plans to run a survey later in the year as part of a regular monitoring initiative aimed at providing consumers with greater confidence in buying basmati.

Members include most of the big brands, such as Tilda, which has been behind the push for new regulations. The company has state-of-the-art basmati DNA testing facilities (Ricesearch) to ensure that only the best basmati goes into each pack.

Brand manager Stephanie Bain says: "Tilda is committed to only offering the finest basmati rice to its consumers, and therefore will only purchase the finest basmati for its products." n

Speciality Consumers seek exotic rice dishes

Authenticity is a buzzword in the grocery industry and sales of specialist rice reflect a desire for the real deal when eating at home.

Consumers are experimenting with new ethnic cuisines and choosing speciality rice to match their meals, prompted by trips abroad, says Tilda category manager Alex Condron.

"Tilda Thai Jasmine rice sales are up 4% by value year-on-year [ACNielsen y/e 17 June 2006]," says Condron. "Other specialist rice, such as wild rice, is showing healthy growth."

Alan Clark, trading manager for ambient at Budgens, says: "Thai rice is growing from a low base as people have holidays in the Far East and get to know all the varieties, while products such as black rice are still very niche, although there's definitely a market for them," he says.

Amit Gupta, head of marketing at Veetee Rice, thinks shoppers will pay even more of a premium for speciality rice. He says that the sector is showing greater penetration - up to 14.1% from 13.2% (ACNielsen Homescan 52 w/e Feb 2006) reflecting the trends of trading up and trying innovative offerings.

Most manufacturers expect the sector to grow in value, as more consumers prove willing to pay for provenance and quality. In response, new brown rice, wild rice and mixes - such as white and brown basmati - have been launched.

This fits well with the focus in the mainstream media on the virtues of eating wholegrain food as part of a healthy balanced diet, with nutritionists such as Gillian McKeith giving white rice a tough time.

"Brown basmati is showing phenomenal growth of 48% and brown long grain is growing at a moderate 4.8%. However, this is at the expense of standard basmati," says Gupta.

Tilda says that brown basmati is experiencing a sales spurt - but white rice has little to fear. Although consumers understand that brown rice is better for them, rice per se isn't viewed as an unhealthy food.

Suzanne McFarlin, customer marketing manager at Uncle Ben's, says: "Our wholegrain Express microwaveable variant is now worth £1m. People are looking for healthy options but although there's definitely a market for these, we don't expect it to explode."

So what's next for the speciality rice category? As flavours are proving popular in the microwaveable sector, we could see combinations of natural flavours in rice, such as lemongrass, cracked pepper, lime, ginger and tarragon. Functional possibilities are also untapped, so seaweed, spinach and natural oils such as Omega-3 could pop up in our packs. And who says yoghurts should have all the fun... probiotic rice anyone?n