White rice or brown rice? This is a choice I’m forced to make fairly regularly. Whether eating out at some of my favorite lunch spots or filling up the shopping cart, it’s never an easy decision. Whole Foods even sells pre-packaged sushi made with both types. Somewhere along the way brown rice won out in the battle for the “healthiest” title, and white rice got demoted to being the guilt inducing second option. Nutritional conventional wisdom says whole grains are usually clear winners over their processed counterparts. White rice is more processed, but is it really that unhealthy? Several experts in the paleo diet movement say white rice is fine to eat for the very fact that it is not like other grains, based on it being easily digestible and lacking the anti-nutrients typical found in wheat and other grain products. Hearing these conflicting recommendations only makes the choice more difficult.
There was a time when I would only choose brown rice. I don’t eat a lot of wheat a good portion of the carbohydrates in my diet come from sources like rice and potatoes. At some point I lost interest in eating brown rice entirely. I never found the taste or texture of it appealing. White rice has less character, but it seems to go better with other foods. Brown rice sushi seems wrong on a very basic level. Besides the cardboard (albeit healthy cardboard) taste, there are a few other reasons that lead me to abandon brown rice.
Where as white rice is ready in 15 minutes, brown rice can take over twice as long to cook. I wouldn’t sacrifice my health for the sake of convenience, but having meals that I can prepare quickly at home is a good incentive to eat out less. White rice is also usually less expensive. Brown rice costs less to process so you might think pricing would be the other way around. Less demand for brown rice may be one explanation for the difference. Another reason is that since brown rice contains oils that oxidize and become rancid, it has a shorter shelf life making it more costly to store and transport. Some restaurants charge a dollar extra to substitute brown for white which comes off like a gratuitous “health” tax.
Speaking from my own experience, ever since switching over to white rice I’ve felt better, am in better physical shape, and even lowered my body fat percentage in the process. I’m not going to claim that eating a certain type of rice was the only reason for this, but it certainly makes me question the reasons why brown rice is commonly recommended as the healthy option.
The Difference Between White and Brown Rice
In a sense when you eat brown rice, you are actually eating white rice–plus a few other parts of the grain. The main difference between the two types is the way they are processed. Brown rice is whole grain rice with only the outermost layer, called the husk, removed. White rice is milled and polished to remove the bran layer and germ part of the grain. The attached outer layers covering the inside part, or endosperm, is the reason brown rice takes longer to cook.
Are claims about brown rice’s superiority exaggerated?
Understanding the nutritional differences between brown and white rice means figuring out what is contained in these outer layers that get removed when white rice is processed.
One of the consequences of the milling process is the loss of any of the nutrients contained in the bran and germ. Here is short breakdown of the nutritional content for each type:
|100 g, cooked||White Rice||Brown Rice|
|Fat||0.3 g||0.8 g|
|Carbohydrates||28.2 g||23.5 g|
|Fiber||0.4 g||1.8 g|
|Protein||2.7 g||2.3 g|
|Magnesium||12.0 mg||44.0 mg|
|Phosphorus||43.0 mg||77.0 mg|
|Folate||3.0 mcg||4.0 mcg|
White rice has slightly more carbs but it also has a little more protein. Neither is a great source for Vitamins A, C, or E. The complete milling and polishing that converts brown rice into white rice destroys 67% of the vitamin B3, 80% of the vitamin B1, 90% of the vitamin B6, half of the manganese, half of the phosphorus, 60% of the iron. all of the dietary fiber and essential fatty acids (Babu, 2009). Brown rice is the clear winner as a source of B Vitamins. In fact, eating only white rice (and no other foods) can cause beriberi–a nervous system disorder caused by a deficiency of Vitamin B1 (thiamin). Beriberi is rare in developed countries, but the lack of vitamins in refined grains, including white rice, is the reasons foods are often enriched after processing to add these lost nutrients lost back.
Everyone needs fiber, right? Well, like with many nutritional questions, this answer is not quite clear. Studies investigating the health benefits of a high fiber diet, or the risks of a low fiber diet, are decidedly mixed. Here is an article that covers some of the reasons why, contrary to conventional wisdom, we don’t need that much fiber in our diet. This is a topic worthy of an entirely separate post so I won’t spend too much time on it here, but from the reading I’ve done so far (like this study from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute) there is not a strong case that fiber from grains is an important part of a healthy diet. I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, or at least try to, so getting extra fiber has never been a concern of mine.
There is also this dubious claim that the additional fiber in brown rice creates of feeling of satiety and therefore aids in weight loss. Compared to the fiber from fruit and vegetables, the fiber from rice comes at the cost of a lot of calories and with nowhere near the same vitamin and mineral content. I think it’s wrong to vilify white rice because of its lack of fiber since eating more fiber only contributes to weight control if it also results in a decrease in calorie consumption. There are much more important concepts that relate to weight loss, such as portion control and the inclusion of nutrient dense foods, so I’m skeptical about the notion that the few extra grams of fiber found in brown rice have any significant impact.
There have been a few studies looking at the association between white rice consumption and Type 2 diabetes. A recent observational study published in the British Journal of Medicine concluded that higher consumption of white rice is correlated with an increased risk of developing the disease, particularly among Asians. However, from the study it couldn’t be concluded that the increased risk was due to white rice consumption or from other lifestyle and dietary factors. The paper was published with an accompanying editorial criticizing the study for its flaws, but the research still generated headlines proclaiming the dangers of white rice, like the BJM’s own press release:
The risk of type 2 diabetes is significantly increased if white rice is eaten regularly
Observational studies do not prove causation yet that doesn’t stop the media from fear-mongering about how white rice will give you diabetes. From a more objective standpoint, here is what an obesity medicine doctor had to say about the results:
The most generous way I can spin it would be that this study, using pooled cohorts that left out tremendously important controls and considerations, when analyzed, suggested that white rice consumption increases the risk of diabetes development in Asian, but not Western, populations.
The worst way to spin it? The fact the cohorts used to determine this study’s conclusions failed to consider incredibly relevant diabetes confounders like family history of diabetes, socioeconomic status, and dietary consumption patterns, including the dietary consumption of other categories of refined grains, makes quantifying the effect on diabetes development due to white rice consumption from this data set impossible.
The editorial published along side the study even stated that people should not use the information from the study as the basis for making dietary choices:
Although the findings of the current study are interesting they have few immediate implications for doctors, patients, or public health services and cannot support large scale action. Further research is needed to develop and substantiate the research hypothesis
An older study from the Archive of Internal Medicine that is often cited reported that eating white rice 5 or more times a week was associated with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes whereas eating brown rice 2 or more times a week showed a decreased risk. Right off the bat one of the obvious drawbacks of this study is the lack of a true comparison between consumption of the two different types. The authors stated there were not enough brown rice eaters in the study to make an accurate comparison. Granted it is difficult to conduct a true experimental study to determine disease risk factors, but there is no way to say brown rice is healthier unless there a direct comparison is made (i.e. look at people eating 5 or more servings of brown rice a week). The much larger flaw in the study, and ultimately the authors’ conclusion, however was the difference in lifestyle and dietary profiles between the two groups:
participants with higher brown rice intake were more physically active, leaner, and less likely to smoke or have a family history of diabetes and had higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and lower intake of red meat and trans fat.
This information undermines and conclusion that about the risks of eating white rice or that brown rice is better at preventing diabetes. Is it surprising that health conscious people have a lower risk for diabetes? When statistical analysis was performed controlling for the difference in lifestyle variables, there was no longer an increased risk associated with eating white rice. It seems likely to me that some of the subjects that were eating brown rice were doing so because they thought it was healthier, and probably were doing a lot of other things that could have lowered their diabetes risk. No matter how misleading headlines and news reports on these studies were, the real results do not present any compelling evidence that brown rice is better for you.
One argument I’ve seen for brown rice relates to the the glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index is an estimates how much a food will raise a person’s blood sugar level after ingestion. Higher GI foods cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels and there is some evidence that a diet consisting of high GI foods may contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Processed foods tend to have higher GI values. White rice is more processed than brown, and this is the primary reason why it’s being investigated in relation to diabetes, but is the GI that different between the two? I’ve seen sources claim that brown rice is healthier because it has a lower GI, but there’s a lot more to that story. Both white and brown rice actually have a wide range of GI values and in some cases white rice may have a lower GI. Here is a look GI numbers for several different types of rice:
|Long grain White Rice||56|
|Short grian White Rice||72|
The glycemic index of rice varieties depends largely on factors such as where the rice is grown and amylose content. Amylose is a type of starch present in both white and brown rice that is more resistant to digestion, thus giving it a lower glycemic index. Higher percentages of amylose in rice result in lower GI values. A more complete list of GI values for rice can be found in this table from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. There are many varieties of white rice with lower GI numbers than brown. Since there is such a wide range of values it’s difficult to make a direct comparison between the brown and white, but just going off the numbers from the table above the body would not respond much differently to brown, long grain white, or basmati rice. Short grain rice in general tends to have a higher GI than long grain varieties so for somewhere concerned about GI, choosing long grain rice is probably a better option.
Minerals and Phytic Acid
Rice, like many seeds, has a number of built in defense mechanisms that serve as a deterrent to consumption. In addition to B vitamins, a few nutrients with known health benefits are lost in the milling process that converts brown rice to white, including magnesium and other minerals, lignans, phytoestrogens, and phytic acid. Unfortunately, not removing the outer portion of the rice grain can also rob your body of nutrients through the action of phytic acid. Phytic acid, or phytate, is the main storage form of phosphorus in plants. The substance is not digestible by humans so the phosphorus becomes trapped and unavailable. Furthermore, phytic acid binds to other essential minerals (including calcium, zinc, niacin, copper, iron and magnesium) thereby preventing them from being absorbed by the body as well. So while white rice may have less minerals than brown rice, the minerals it does contain may have higher bioavailability because phytic acid is removed with the bran in the milling process. Cooking brown rice does little to lower the phyate content. There is debate about the effects of phytate, but some research suggests that a diet high in phytate can lead to mineral deficiencies, rickets, and osteoporosis. To be fair this is a subject that requires further research, but looking at the current evidence, it may be a point in white rice’s favor.
There may also be more than just anti-nutrients contained in the bran layer of brown rice. Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water more than other crops because it is grown in water flooded conditions. Consumer Reports recently published a study on the arsenic content of rice. Inorganic arsenic, found in pesticides and insecticides, is a known carcinogen linked to a number of different cancers in humans. Brown rice was found to have much higher levels of inorganic arsenic, primarily because arsenic becomes concentrated in the outer layers of the grain that are removed when white rice is milled. The Consumer Reports article noted that “arsenic concentrations found in the bran that is removed during the milling process to produce white rice can be 10 to 20 times higher than levels found in bulk rice grain”.
There may still be some yet to uncovered health benefits derived from consuming the outer layers of the rice grain. One study found that a component found in brown rice may decrease the activity of a protein known to induce high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Still, looking at the many Asian countries that include white rice as a staple of their diet yet have a relatively healthy population, it’s hard to make the case that white rice is unhealthy. Portion control, restricted consumption of refined foods, physical activity and other lifestyle choices probably play a much more important role in a person’s health than which type of rice they eat.
Which Rice Comes Out On Top?
I’m not certain there is a real winner when white and brown rice go head to head. Brown rice undoubtedly contains more B vitamins, though often times the white rice you find in the store comes enriched with these. Brown rice has more fiber but it can be argued that fiber from cereal grains is not a necessary part of a healthy diet. The claim that white rice increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes is weak at best, and saying that white rice has a higher glycemic index is equally unfounded. The bran layer found in brown rice, besides increasing your exposure to arsenic, also contains anti-nutrients which can limit the absorption of minerals. It may also contain nutrients with benefits that have yet to be thoroughly investigated. That is a lot of information to consider when you’re hungry and just want to eat. In the end, portion size and figuring out what else is going on your plate are probably more important question than which rice to choose.
There is a third rice option that I think deserves a mention: parboiled rice. Parboiled rice is rice that is soaked, steamed, and dried and then milled into white rice. The parboiling processes drives some of the B vitamins from the outside of the grain into the endosperm, producing rice without the bran layer but with a nutrient profile closer to brown rice. Parboiled rice also comes in with some of the lowest glycemic index values of all the rices studied. I don’t think I’ve ever tried it so I can’t speak for what it’s like, but it certainly makes a good case for itself.
Personally, I still prefer white rice. It’s worked well as part of my everyday diet and I enjoy eating it. Long grain, white basmati and jasmine rices are my favorites and the ones I’ll typically make at home. The inconvenience, cost, and uninspiring taste of brown rice is not likely to bring me back anytime soon, especially when there is no clear benefit to eating it. There are certainly more nutrient dense foods than rice in general, but as a source of carbohydrates white rice is fairly benign.
What are your thoughts? Does anyone have a preference for brown rice? Let me know in the comments.