Cauliflower rice has been popping up in grocery freezer aisles and on the menu at restaurants nationwide, as an increasing number of health-conscious eaters look to curb their carb intake.
The plant-based imitation food seems to be especially prevalent in Silicon Valley, where tech workers are cutting carbs and eating lots of fat in an attempt to lead longer, better lives.
The rising popularity of the carb-light alternative to rice isn’t making the rice industry happy. A rice lobby group said it may ask the US government to review its definition of rice in an effort to lessen the competition in cauliflower, Quartz reported.
Cauliflower rice looks like rice. It’s made from pulsing the vegetable briefly in a food processor. Like rice, it soaks up the juices and seasonings of whatever it’s cooked with. But on its own, cauliflower rice has the bland taste of cauliflower and the wetness of minced zucchini.
On a recent visit to Mealmade, an on-demand food delivery startup based in San Francisco, I watched one cook chop cauliflower while another pulverized the vegetable in a food processor. Later in the day, they would scoop it into compostable containers for a variety of dishes.
The startup, founded in 2015, specialises in healthy takes on comfort food classics. The Carne Asada Taco Bowl tops cauliflower rice with grass-fed sirloin steak, fried plantains, organic pickled peppers, and guacamole. The Orange Chicken — a best-seller according to Mealmade — buries the cauliflower rice in coconut-flour fried chicken, cilantro, and sliced kumquats.
Cauliflower rice is also on the menus at on-demand food delivery startups Sprig and Thistle, as well as meal-kit delivery services Blue Apron and Sun Basket.
There are about two grams of net carbohydrates in a cup of cauliflower, compared to 51 grams in white rice and 42 grams in brown rice.
The rice industry is not thrilled at the prospect of an imitation food, especially a guilt-free one, taking away their market share. “Only rice is rice, and calling ‘riced vegetables’ (as cauliflower rice is sometimes named) ‘rice,’ is misleading and confusing to consumers,” Betsy Ward, president of USA Rice, said in a statement in May. “We may be asking the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies to look at this.”
The FDA has oversight over food labelling and can force a company to change a product name if it is likely to stump customers. For example, Tyson’s Any’tizers Boneless Chicken Wyngz* feature an asterisk because the “wyngz” contain no real wing meat.
Silicon Valley startup Hampton Creek created a line of “Just Mayo” products made from plants. The FDA issued a letter in 2015 saying the products couldn’t be called mayonnaise because they do not contain eggs (The FDA later decided only semantic changes on the label were necessary.).
Dairy groups have waged similar battles with makers of soy and almond milk.
Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, remains optimistic.
“Just as with milk, no one owns the word ‘rice,'” Simon told Quartz.