When rice cakes first hit grocery stores in the early 1980s, they seemed like the perfect snack food for health-conscious consumers: wholesome, low-calorie, filling and loaded with vitamins and minerals.
Too bad the manufacturers seemed to have forgotten about taste. One bite of the hockey-puck-shaped snack made some people think of Styrofoam or cardboard.
Since then, rice cake manufacturers have tried to satisfy consumers' taste buds and nutritionists' concerns. "There is no question that taste has been a major issue in the category," said Bruce Poole, general manager of light snacks for Quaker Oats Co.
About 20 percent of America's 89 million households have bought rice cakes, according to Poole, whose company reported $30 million in rice cake sales last year.
With the help of flavor experts, companies are jazzing up the traditionally bland product. There are two flavoring systems -- savory or sweet, and two methods -- dry or wet -- that companies can use to enhance flavor, said Stephen Ganski, a flavor researcher with Fries & Fries Inc., a flavor house.
For example, rice cakes can be coated with dry seasonings to create a barbecue or nacho cheese flavor. They may also be sprayed with a raspberry, strawberry or honey mixture to satisfy America's craving for sweets.
The key is to increase the flavor without sacrificing nutrition -- a rice cake's strongest asset. One cake -- 9 grams -- has 35 calories, no cholesterol and little fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Rice cakes are made from brown rice. In addition to being a good source of fiber, rice bran helps to lower cholesterol, said Antoinette Betschart, a USDA food quality researcher in Albany, Calif.
To improve the flavor of a plain rice cake, people sometimes slather on cream cheese or peanut butter, boosting calories and fat. One ounce of cream cheese adds 100 calories and 10 grams of fat. A tablespoon of peanut butter contains 95 calories and 8 grams of fat.
To capture more of the expanding snack-food market, the Hain Pure Food Co., a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Pet Inc., introduced mini rice cakes in 1986. They now come in a variety of flavors -- honey nut, apple cinnamon, cheese, barbecue, teriyaki, ranch and nacho cheese.
Last year, Quaker followed with buttered popcorn and white cheddar versions of the larger cakes and will soon offer an apple cinnamon flavor.
For people who want to stick with a plain cake, there are ways to make them more palatable, said Marilyn Guthrie, a nutritionist with the American Dietetic Association.
Try a low-fat cream cheese with cucumber or zucchini slices or blend low-fat ricotta cheese with cinnamon and raisins and spread the mixture on top. Pizza lovers should top a cake with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.