Monday, August 3, 2020

Pandemic Silver Lining - Chinese Restaurant Leftovers May Be Healthier For You

In talking with many of my Asian-American friends and family in my age group, I have found that a significant portion of them are diabetic or pre-diabetic and have to alter their diets accordingly.  And for people who live most of their lives eating meals centered around rice, and to a lesser extent, noodles, this is a very painful experience, since Chinese cuisine really isn't Chinese food without these carb loaded foods.   Indeed it is widely known that instead of greeting someone with the words "How are you?"  Chinese may say "Sihk faan mei?" which literally is "Have you eaten?"  Perhaps not as well known is that the word "faan" means rice.  But on the glycemic index, where a rating of 100 means ingesting a particular food is equivalent to eating pure sugar, with some white rice varieities having a glycemic index approaching 90,  eating rice is an unaffordable luxury for many of us.

Turning to the pandemic, the main storyline for restaurants is that survival has meant pivoting to a takeout model.  And with people hunkered down at home, takeout is not necessarily for one's next meal, but going out once or twice a week and ordering several meals to be refrigerated or frozen. But in a strange twist of fate, to the extent you refrigerate your takeout Chinese meal for another day's consumption, you may be able to have your rice (or noodles) and eat it, too.

Even with the backdrop of many of us having to limit or avoid our intake of rice and noodles, there were some anomalies.  For example, fresh rice noodles like chow fun or pho have a low glycemic index putting them in the safe eating range.  Also, Chinese-American folklore claims that fried rice is better for you than plain rice.  While these statements were surprising, I had never bothered to discover any rationale and accepted these as anomalies.

But then I heard something that has turned out to be life changing.  Supposedly, when refrigerated, cooked rice becomes a low glycemic food, infinitely more palatable for diabetic and pre-diabetic eaters.  The operative concept is that of "resistant starch."  Scientifically, this means in this altered form, the affected carbohydrate no longer breaks down and releases glucose into the bloodstream.  Some foods are naturally high in resistant starch, such as beans, lentils and whole grains.  But there's the whole other category of foods which release high levels of glucose into your bloodstream when freshly cooked and eaten hot, but form resistant starch when cooked and refrigerated.  Besides rice, this includes noodles and potatoes.

Of course the obvious question is what happens to a cooked and cooled resistant starch when it is subsequently reheated?  Does the heating make them villains again?  Apparently for rice and noodles, reheating the food does not alter the resistant starch status.  There seems to be some disagreement about reheated potatoes, so I still don't bother with eating them.

So what about fresh rice noodles and fried rice?  What makes eating these items freshly cooked them so palatable with a low glycemic index?  Well with fresh rice noodles I've been told that their production involves taking cooked rice, cooling it, and then grinding it up and mixing it with starches and other ingredits.  This renders the ultimately minted rice noodle a low glycemic, resistant starch product.  However, there may be a caveat to that because I saw a recent report out of Hong Kong which indicated that steamed rice noodle rolls (cheung fun) had a very high glycemic index.  I also know that in the past few years a new style of rice noodle  (distinctively softer and wrinkled) had been invented using stone ground rice flour, so I'm wondering if these are processed differently not to include an initial cooking and cooling of the rice flour, but going directly from the rice flour to rice noodle stage.  So quite possibly the old style cheung fun, whose rice wrapper was very similar to the fresh chow fun noodle, could be low glycemic, while the new style one is not. 

And how about fried rice?  Well as all Chinese cooks know, you should use leftover rice for fried rice, not freshly cooked rice, because fresh rice produces a soggy product, while leftover, refrigerated rice has had time to dry out.   When I was a kid, everybody knew restaurants used leftover rice for fried rice, maybe even getting leftovers off the diners tables after they left.  These days, I don't know if Chinese restaurants are permitted to reuse rice like this, so to be safe (from a resistant starch point of view), you might want to refrigerate and reheat your fried rice, too.

There are other benefits to resistant starches besides the lower glycemic index, so much as to garner the coveted "superfood" tag.  In any event my interest is in the effects on blood sugar, and I'm now able to enjoy more Chinese rice, dry rice noodle, and wheat noodle dishes than I could have imagined a year ago, just by eating them as leftovers. 

Of course as to anything to do with diet and health there are multiple opinions out there and you need to evaluate these on your own.  To me, the fact that fresh rice noodles (as well as converted rice) have undisputedly low glycemic indices which can be explained by the reprocessing inherent in these products is compelling.  And I have the A1C results to show that resistant starches really do work for me.