Rice isn’t nice for diabetics, but four low glycaemic index (GI) varieties developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) could make the cereal not just less damaging but also help achieve better diabetes control, scientists have said.

In a country on course to becoming the world’s diabetes capital by 2025, low GI foods — including quinoa and millets-based cereals — have become a fad for those wanting alternatives to starchy grains. According to World Health Organization (WHO), India has close to 62 million people living with the diseases and is projected to have close to 70 million diabetics by 2025, more than the diabetic population of any other country in the world.

Glycaemic index is a measure of how quickly food is digested and sugar released into the bloodstream. Low GI foods are digested slowly and don’t instantly release huge amounts of sugar in the body. Rice, naturally high in starch, has a high GI score, making it a bad grain for diabetics.

“But for a vast majority of Indians whose diets culturally depend on rice, it’s very difficult for other grains to take its place,” says scientist Jyothi Badri of the Hyderabad-based, state-run Indian Institute of Rice Research.

The institute has cracked complex rice plant biology to produce a bunch of varieties that have lower GI index. They also are better quality and have higher yields. Rice naturally has a GI score of 70-80.

According to V Ravindrababu, a former director of the institute who oversaw the project, the challenge was to reduce the GI score to 55.

The new varieties that were validated by the National Institute of Nutrition as having the lowest GI scores compared to commonly consumed varieties are Lalat (GI=53.17), BPT5204 (GI=51.42), Sampada (GI=51) and Samba Masuri (GI=53). All the new varieties have GI scores that are comparable to millet-based breakfast cereals such as oatmeal and quinoa, which have GI scores of 55 and 53.

These varieties will be released to farmers in the upcoming kharif or summer-sown season in 13 states.

Diabetes is a condition where the body can’t maintain the right amount of glucose in the blood. Having rice that breaks down more slowly to glucose, or low-GI rice, can therefore ensure sugar is more evenly released over time, rather than all at once. Any variety of rice with a GI score of 55 or less is considered diabetic-friendly.

According to Badri, the “intention” behind developing these low GI rice varieties was to produce high-yielding rice. Their low glycaemic profile was incidental, she said.

“Since they come with a low GI index, they can help good control of diabetes because they release sugar more slowly. But it is important to note that the quantity consumed is still important. Too much of these low GI rice isn’t advisable,” Badri said.

What’s more, the government even distributes rice cheaply to some 800 million poor Indians every month and many experts have said the government would do well to replace some of the rations with protein-based items.