Premium brand rice may cost twice as much but it does not necessarily taste twice as good, a LifeStyle blind taste test has shown.Sure, the testers could tell by the fragrance and taste that rice from Royal Umbrella ($20.80 for 10kg) and Golden Phoenix ($20.30 for 10kg) are premium grains.
But basic brands such as FairPrice's jasmine fragrant rice from Vietnam ($5.75 for 5 kg) and Sheng Siong's house brand Happy Family ($5.20 for 5kg) rivalled the premium brands in smell and texture.
What's more, the testers found that some premium grades of rice such as Double FP ($17.90 for 10kg) were 'hard' and 'not fragrant'.
Food consultant Violent Oon, 58, who cooked the rice and was one of the three testers, was not surprised by the results. Three foodies - (from left) housewife Florence Lee, ST food critic Wong Ah Yoke and food consultant Violet Oon tasted 12 rice brands sold at supermarkets. They ate the steamed rice plain.
She said: 'Some brands of premium rice may be more fragrant and taste better than cheaper alternatives, but the difference in quality is not pronounced enough to justify paying twice the amount.' The other testers were Straits Times food critic Wong Ah Yoke and housewife Florence Lee.
The panel was asked to taste 12 brands of fragrant white rice and to identify which brand was premium or basic based on aroma, taste and appearance.
Rice prices for premium and basic brands have gone up by up to 14 per cent in recent weeks, caused by a surge in global demand for grain, poor harvests and increasing cost of production.
The price rise has led to Singaporeans rushing to buy rice in anticipation of further increases. And price increase or not, Singaporeans do not seem to mind paying a premium for what they regard as superior rice.
But as the taste test found out, consumers could be paying more than they needed to for the basic staple.
Close to 60 per cent of Singapore's total rice imports come from Thailand, with hom mali being the dominant variety. This long-grain rice is said to have a distinct jasmine scent.
A spokesman for Sheng Siong said premium and basic brands make up equal parts of its rice sales and this has not changed despite the rising cost of rice. Similarly, Mr Tng Ah Yiam, director of integrated buying for FairPrice said that sales of both basic and premium brands grew by 30 per cent each early this month, a result of panic buying over fears of a rice shortage.
Ms Evonne Sng, 36, knows that she would save more than 40 per cent if she switches from Royal Umbrella to a basic brand.
But the finance senior manager would not do it.
She said: 'While the taste of rice would not affect my enjoyment of a meal greatly, I don't want to stint on my kids who prefer this brand as its rice is softer and fluffier than the rest that we've tried.'
Other consumers such as communications executive Geneveive Tan, 31, said they continue buying premium rice out of habit.
She added: 'To me, rice is just rice and I don't mind changing to a cheaper brand, but I've been eating it since young so I feel a certain sense of brand loyalty.
'Besides, a 5kg bag of rice lasts my family of three a month, so we don't feel the pinch as much.'
Even Madam Lee, 53, one of the three LifeStyle testers, said she would still stick to Royal Umbrella.
'My husband is very particular about the taste and texture of rice and he likes the brand, so he doesn't mind paying more.'
Mr Thian Boon Hua, 54, general manager of chicken rice shop Boon Tong Kee, is also adamant about serving his customers premium white rice from Golden Phoenix.
He said: 'We cannot short-change our customers. We'll maintain our prices for as long as we can, and when we can't hold out any longer, we'd rather raise the price than switch to a cheaper alternative.'
One plate of chicken rice at Boon Tong Kee costs $5.40.
That said, there are also consumers who have made the switch.
Madam Ivy Pang, 33, used to buy premium brands of rice when they were on offer. With the recent rice price hike however, the customer relations officer has been buying cheaper brands to save on her grocery bill.
FairPrice said its housebrand jasmine rice from Vietnam, which is 20 cent per kg cheaper than a similar grade of rice from Thailand, has seen a two-fold increase in sales since its introduction in October last year.
Others who have made the switch to cheaper alternatives include noodle manufacturer Chye Choon Foods, which also imports and distributes rice.
Its managing director Jimmy Soh, 38, said the company has been importing rice from Myanmar, which is almost US$200 (S$272) cheaper per tonne than rice from Thailand, to be used as an ingredient in its rice vermicelli.
He was quick to add however that the Myanmar rice is only good for noodle-making and not for consumption as table rice.
Asked whether the switch to a cheaper alternative has affected the taste of his noodles, he replied: 'It may be cheaper but the quality is not compromised.'
Which rice is nice?
Three foodies, housewife Florence Lee, ST food critic Wong Ah Yoke and food consultant Violet Oon tasted 12 rice brands sold at supermarkets. They ate the steamed rice plain.
SONGHE Country: Thailand
Price: $19.70 for 10kg
Verdict: Though chewy, it lacks flavour and a distinctive fragrance. It is also a little clumpy.
ROYAL GOLDEN GRAIN Country: Thailand
Price: $8.80 for 5kg
Verdict: Soft and chewy but the rice is not aromatic. The grains do not clump together.
DOUBLE FP Country: Thailand
Price: $17.90 for 10kg
Verdict: The rice grains do not stick together but it is hard and not fragrant.
FAIRPRICE FRAGRANT Country: Thailand
Price: $5.30 for 5kg
Verdict: The rice is not fragrant and a little hard. The rice grains look ordinary.
GOLDEN PHOENIX Country: Thailand
Price: $10.50 for 5kg
Verdict: Soft and fragrant with a pleasant flavour. The rice grains look ordinary.
NEW MOON Country: Thailand
Price: $10.20 for 5kg
Verdict: Fragrant, fluffy and soft. The rice grains do not clump together.
GOLDEN PINEAPPLE Country: Thailand
Price: $8.55 for 5kg
Verdict: The rice grains are well formed but the rice is hard and not fragrant.
FAIRPRICE GOLD Country: Thailand
Price: $19.90 for 10kg
Verdict: The rice is soft and the grains do not clump together but it does not have a distinctive taste.
FAIRPRICE JASMINE FRAGRANT Country: Vietnam
Price: $5.75 for 5kg
Verdict: The rice looks fluffy and tastes soft. It also has a pleasant smell.
HAPPY FAMILY Country: Thailand
Price: $5.20 for 5kg
Verdict: Soft and chewy. The rice has a mild scent, but some of the grains are broken.
ROYAL UMBRELLA Country: Thailand
Price: $10.80 for 5kg
Verdict: Soft, chewy and fluffy in appearance, this rice has the strongest fragrance of all the brands tested.
HARVEST KING Country: Thailand
Price: $9.50 for 5kg
Verdict: It has a mild scent and is chewy, but some of the grains are broken.