Rice Flour Development in Japan—Gluten Free Goes Global

While recent increases in wheat prices have shined a spotlight on Japanese rice flour, demand for this flour had already been on the rise due partly to the gluten-free diet.
Expectations are growing for rice flour, which is made by pulverizing rice.

Demand Driven by the Gluten-Free Diet in the West

The development of rice flour and related products have been underway in Japan for many years, with the products used to cater to those with allergies to wheat, gluten, and more. The growing demand for rice flour in recent years, however, has a lot to do with the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet mainly in the West. Expectations are growing that rice flour will be able to replicate—to a relatively close level—bread, noodles, and other products that were previously made with wheat, and that this will lead to new culinary experiences.

Rice cultivation in Japan began in the Jomon Period (14,500 BCE - 300 CCE), and it is thought that by the Yayoi Period (300 BCE - 300 CE), rice had already become a staple in parts of the country. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery's food balance sheets, however, the annual consumption of rice per person peaked in 1962, at about 118.3 kilograms, and has declined since. Indeed, the number in 2020 was 50.7 kilograms—less than half the amount of 1962. The consumption of wheat, however, has remained stable since the 1950s. Japan has worked to popularize rice flour, if partly to expand the consumption of rice—one of the very few crops for which the country may be entirely self-sufficient.

Until about 2017, the demand and supply of rice flour remained consistent. In about 2018, however, the consumption and production of rice flour began to increase, due in part to the implementation of the non-gluten rice flour certification policy by the Japan Rice Flour Association. According to this policy, products are only considered gluten-free if they contain 1 ppm or less of gluten—stricter standards than in Europe and the U.S., which require 20 ppm or less. Over the past five years, consumption and production have increased to 1.8 times what they were before.

Certified non-gluten rice flour and registered non-gluten rice flour-based processed foods are emblazoned with this mark. Image: Courtesy of Japan Rice Flour Association

Advancements in milling technologies, and subsequent increases in the degree of rice flour refinement, were an additional factor that pushed consumption upward. Another major factor was that manufacturers could now produce rice flour suited even for foods like bread and cake, meaning it was possible to set varying standards depending on the purpose of the rice flour (for confectionaries, bread, noodles, etc.).

Making Pho with Rice Flour from Short-Grain Japanese Rice

Until that point, rice flour had primarily been used to make products like Japanese confectionaries and rice crackers. With these advancements in milling technologies, however, also came the evolution of rice flour-based processed goods. For instance, the Vietnamese restaurant Chopsticks, which has several shops within Tokyo, has been working to incorporate rice flour-based noodles into their menu since their founding in 2003.

The steamed chicken pho is a staple on the Chopsticks menu. Photo: Courtesy of Chop Sticks

The restaurant began developing these noodles with a specific goal in mind: "Making the world's most delicious rice noodles with Japan's delicious rice." Pho (Vietnamese rice noodles) are typically made by hand using long-grain rice noodles produced in Southeast Asia. The restaurant's path to achieving its goal of producing this same noodle in a factory using rice flour made with short-grain Japanese rice—to lower costs—was full of struggle. Eventually, however, the restaurant was able to produce plump, slippery noodles that utilize the advantages of Japanese rice.

In the span of just a few months, Chopsticks managed to develop fresh noodles made from short-grain Japanese rice—a feat that was thought to be difficult to accomplish. Photo: Courtesy of Chop Sticks

The AEON Group, which operates large-scale supermarkets throughout the country, has also begun manufacturing and selling pasta, Chinese-style noodles, and more made with 100% rice flour. Little by little, noodles made in Japan, from Japanese rice, are making their way into noodle products distributed to the general population.

Japan Bringing Its Latest Milling Technologies to the World

Nowadays, manufacturers—who have discerned opportunities for Japanese milling technologies to be useful abroad—are working to develop their technologies further. According to Takahashi Senichiro, advisor to the Japan Rice Flour Association, the current trend is for Japanese manufacturers to export milling machinery and mill rice abroad, rather than exporting rice flour directly. He says, however, that there is potential for this to change. "What we're excited about is pregelatinized rice flour, produced using a new and original milling method in Japan. Typical rice flour, which is made from unprocessed rice, has the same starch structure (beta starch) as unprocessed rice. But pregelatinized rice flour is made from starch that's been gelatinized through cooking, making it easier to use and digest. It can also be stored for longer than rice flour and is lightweight, which makes it suited for export."

There's no doubt that the demand for rice flour will continue to increase in the future, especially with the global gluten-free market continuing to expand as it is. And going along with it will be continued efforts to explore the value of and demand for Japanese rice flour.

Interview and writing by Tauchi Shoko
Translation by Amitt