Preparing rice should be a simple affair, yet many consumers cook up a bowl of glutinous grains or cook so much that they end up tipping half of it in the bin.

This means that microwaveable versions are a godsend to time-pressed stressed-out cooks. There's no confusion about how to cook them, as they provide consistent, fail-safe results.

Their success has delighted both manufacturers and retailers, which have seen penetration rise and better returns on what is a premium product.

Sainsbury's, for example, labels the sector a rising star and now dedicates as much as 50% of its rice shelves to microwave pouches as they have far exceeded the chain's expectations.

It seems that a growing number of consumers can't be bothered to wash and boil up traditional rice and Uncle Ben's expects the microwaveable rice sector to be equal to the dried rice sector by the end of 2007.

"There's a trend for easy meal solutions and microwaveable rice meets that demand. The sector is growing by 24% [IRI 52 w/e 20 May 2006] and being driven by Uncle Ben's, which has a 77% share," says Suzanne McFarlin, customer marketing manager at Uncle Ben's.

Despite this, the microwaveable sector is still in its infancy, with fewer than 25% of UK households buying into it, according to ACNielsen. That's why Uncle Ben's and Tilda's Rizazz are working to pull in even more consumers by offering a huge range of varieties. Both brands have 16 each, covering a wide range of cuisines.

Uncle Ben's McFarlin says: "Variety is important, which is why we have 16 choices including speciality rice, and healthier versions, such as wholegrain. Half the rice we sell in microwaveable pouches is flavoured."

Microwaveable rice sales are being fuelled by recipe rices, rather than plain white rice, and now account for more than half of the sales in this sector, says Tilda.

Its Rizazz range has four

new varieties: Brown Basmati, White & Brown Basmati, Four Cheese and Chinese Mushroom.

"The new varieties aim to broaden the appeal of microwaveable rices, providing an entry point for savoury rice consumers who are trading up to microwaveable rice," says Kate Barnett, senior brand manager for Rizazz.

Microwaveable pouches have also introduced shoppers to the joys of risotto, according to Gallo UK. Its two-minute Expresso risotto rices are up 20% in value

year-on-year, says MD Michael Winfield.

Recent TV ads featuring the Risotto Expresso range helped to more than double sales for the whole four-month campaign. Adds Winfield: "Consumers will pay more for brands - especially if they are seen to be authentic with either added value or convenience." n