FOR STEPHANIE Pagarigan, a member of the UST badminton team and a Sports Science junior, rice is important for a student-athlete like her.

“It’s hard to separate rice from our diet because rice is the main quick source of energy. Athletes’ metabolism rates are different,” Pagarigan said.

She regularly eats four-and-a-half to six servings of rice a day as part of her regular diet.

The same goes for Alex Pagar, a Facilities Management Office plumber. He consumes four-and-a-half to nine servings of rice per meal, saying that rice is an irreplaceable energy booster for those engaged in manual labor like him.

“It’s what we’re used to and rice is very important for Filipinos,” Pagar said.

According to Basic Nutrition for Filipinos (2002, Merriam & Webster Bookstore), athletes like Pagarigan should consume 7-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram while adults like Pagar may consume 11 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram a day to adequately provide them with enough energy for their daily activities.

However, with the rice crisis hounding the country, some studies are considering substitutes for the national staple.

“Filipinos are advised to consume other food caloric sources such as corn cassava and sweet potato,” Dr. Teodoro C. Mendoza of the University of the Philippines-Los Banos, said in an Impact Magazine interview last April 2008.

Impact Magazine is a publication of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ Communications Development Foundation for Social Advocacy.

But are these alternatives acceptable to the Filipino diet?

Maricel de los Santos, nutritionist-dietician from the UST Hospital, explained that bread, sweet potato, noodles and biscuits can provide the energy that rice gives but only with bigger servings.

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“One-half cup of rice is equivalent to one-half piece of sweet potato, while one cup of noodles is to half cup rice,” De los Santos told the Varsitarian. “Three pieces of pan de sal is equal to one half cup rice.”

The price of pan de sal, a local bread variety commonly sold in bakeries for breakfast and snack, rose from one peso last year to two pesos and fifty centavos this year.

De los Santos also commented that a half-cup serving of cooked rice contains “23 grams of carbohydrates and two grams of protein.” This serving is equal to 100 calories.

A Philippine Star report last June 16 mentioned that even the saba (Musa Balbisiana) variety of bananas could be a substitute to rice, according to Dr. Agustin Molina, regional coordinator for Asia and the Pacific of Biodiversity International, an institute which deals with the conservation and research of agricultural biodiversity. Unlike rice, bananas can be grown anywhere and any time of the year.

The report also noted that the matoke variety of bananas are consumed as staple food in countries like Uganda, an East African country where land is mostly savannah with the only arable part lying in the south. Matoke is similar to another banana variety in the Philippines known as lakatan (Musa Paradisiaca).

“Don’t worry when weather sets in and your banana crop is still growing. Don’t panic because it is drought resistant,” Molina said, referring to the resistance of the fruit to climate change.

Meanwhile, The Manila Times reported last June 16 that aside from the usual corn, kamote (Ipomoea Batatas) or sweet potato can be a feasible substitute.

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According to the director of the government’s hybrid rice program, Frisco Malabanan, kamote is a high-value crop mostly grown in the Visayas, where it is produced on a large-scale basis. The report also mentioned corn as another staple being used in that region.

Nutritionally speaking, a half piece of kamote or one cob of corn can replace one half cup of rice.

But Thomasian economist Alvin Ang said that rice is the Filipinos’ staple food and cannot be changed abruptly with anything, not even bread.

“Eating rice has been part of the culture of the Filipino,” Ang said.

Even with the “Tinapay ng Bayan” caravan launched last April 25 by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Agriculture, cheap bread won’t become a substitute for rice.

Patronizing baked products as shoo-ins for rice may just worsen the situation given that a sack of flour now costs P890.

“We are not a wheat-producing country and have to depend on imported wheat,” Ang said.

To offset the rather expensive imported wheat, the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology recently introduced a bread dough made up of 35 percent squash.

The initiative makes sense considering that squash is grown commercially all over Luzon in areas such as the Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, Southern Tagalog, and in Bicol, and non-commercially in Laguna, Leyte, and Davao.

These rice substitutes may be exceptional when it comes to matching the nutritional value of the staple but not budget-wise.

“One cup of noodles would cost you about fifty pesos,” De los Santos said. “The way you would cook traditional pancit canton would be even more expensive.”

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Undeniably, rice has become a permanent fixture in the Filipino diet.

“Our staple food is rice. Although we can change it calorie-wise, as part of our culture, we cannot stop eating rice,” De los Santos said. “We are a rice-producing country and it doesn’t look pleasing to cook adobo without matching (it) with rice.” Alphonsus Luigi E. Alfonso with reports from Andrewly A. Agaton

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