According to conventional wisdom, white rice is a tasty, versatile starch that’s bad for you, while brown rice is a good-for-you grain that tastes bad. But is the difference between the two really so straightforward?
Let’s start with the basics: There are more than 40,000 cultivated varieties of rice — each with a brown form. After rice is harvested, the grain is dried, the outer hull removed, and what’s left — the brownish germ and the bran — constitutes brown rice. Further milling and polishing produces white rice. This refinement strips away vitamins, minerals, and fiber, but creates a product with a longer shelf life, and some would argue, a better taste.
It is fact that brown rice contains more nutrients than white rice. Just one cup of brown rice delivers more than 80 percent of your daily requirement of manganese, a mineral critical to brain and nerve function that’s also involved in regulating metabolism and blood sugar. Brown rice also contains twice the phosphorus of its white counterpart and 2.5 times the iron, as well as a natural bran oil that helps reduce LDL cholesterol. And regarding the issue of the so-called anti-nutrients in brown rice, which are part of the plant’s natural defense against pests, most agree this isn’t a reason to avoid eating brown rice.
On the vitamin side, brown rice yields three times the B3, four times the B1, and 10 times the B6. Manufacturers sometimes try to bridge the gap by enriching white rice with a thin coating of vitamins before sending the grain to market, but the lost fiber and heart-healthy oil can never be restored — and if you rinse your white rice before cooking it, those vitamins just go down the drain anyway.
In terms of calories and carbohydrate content, the two varieties don’t differ much, but because of its fiber, brown rice offers a lower glycemic index. That means you’ll experience a slower, less dramatic spike in blood sugar after eating those carbs. Researchers in both the U.S. and Asia have linked frequent white rice consumption to an elevated risk of Type 2 diabetes, making the brown variety the better choice for anyone worried about the disease. Health professionals also recommend brown rice for those pursuing weight loss, since the increased fiber helps you feel satisfied with less food. A Harvard study found that women who eat a diet rich in whole grains, like brown rice, weigh less and gain less weight over time than those who consume more refined grains.
On the other hand, nearly every country and culture in the world incorporates rice into its cuisine – and all show a preference for the white variety. If brown rice is so great, why isn’t it more popular? Blame that healthy bran oil, which turns rancid in six to eight months (which is also why you should store your brown rice in the refrigerator or freezer). Brown rice also takes longer to cook, and then there’s that nutty, chewy texture that can be hard to accept if you’ve grown up eating Uncle Ben’s. Shelly Howard Wegman, a registered dietitian at Rex Wellness Center in Garner, North Carolina, advises clients who balk at brown rice to try mixing white and brown grains to ease the transition. Pairing whole-grain rice with flavorful Chinese, Thai, or Indian dishes may also make it more palatable for new converts.
If you’ve tried multiple recipes and found that brown rice still isn’t your thing, don’t despair — what you eat with your rice is likely more important than the type of rice. A 2014 study from researchers at Baylor University found that adults who eat rice daily – white or brown — tend to consume more fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and enjoyed better nutrition overall. No matter what type of rice you choose, top it with plenty of fiber-rich veggies and a little lean protein for a healthy, balanced meal.
(Image credits: Faith Durand; Lisa Pepin; Kelli Foster)