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Is brown rice best? What about white rice? Myths and facts about rice

A reader asked, “Is white rice good or bad for you?  I rarely touch the stuff, but my Ecuadorian friends keep telling me it’s good for you.”

Yes, Ecuadorians do eat a lot of white rice, compared to North Americans. However, Ecuador’s consumption pales in comparison to Asia.

Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world’s human population, especially in Asia. On average, Asians consume about 100 kg per capita annually (about 220 lbs) each year — per person! That’s about 3.5 cups of cooked rice daily.

In the United States, the average daily consumption is only about 8 kg or about 18 pounds a year. Ecuadorians consume about 30 kg (66 pounds) per year, or about 1.3 cups of cooked rice each day.

Researchers estimate that rice cultivation began in Asia and then Africa about 14,000 years ago. According to the trade group Ricepedia, rice was introduced to Latin America and the Caribbean by European colonizers in the early 1500s and introduced Asian rice to Mexico in the 1520s at Veracruz, Mexico. Around the same time, the Portuguese and their African slaves introduced it to colonial Brazil. Today, rice is the third-highest agricultural commodity grown globally.

“Good” or “Bad?”  Rice Nutrition

When it comes to food, I avoid using terms like “good” or “bad.”  Instead, I talk healthful or harmful, or nutritious or not.

Let’s first talk whole grain (or brown) rice compared to regular white rice. The Whole Grains Council writes, “White rice is a refined grain, not a whole grain because the germ and bran have been removed. Whole grain rice is usually brown – but, unknown to many, can also be black, purple, red or any of a variety of exotic hues. … Brown rice is lower in fiber than most other whole grains, but is rich in many nutrients.”

Nutrition Facts: 1 cup cooked

White Rice (medium grain cooked, unenriched): calories 242  carbohydrate-53 g, protein-4.4 g, fiber-less than 1 g, niacin (vitamin B2)-0.744 mg (4% DV), thiamin (vitamin B3)-0.037 mg (2% DV), manganese-0.7 mg (35% DV), iron-0.37 mg (2% DV).

Brown Rice (long-grain, cooked): calories: 248, carbohydrate -52 g, protein-5.5 g, fiber-3.2 g, niacin (vitamin B2)-5.173 mg (26% DV), thiamin (vitamin B3)-0.360 mg (26% of DV), manganese-1.967 mg (98% DV), iron-1.13 mg (6% DV).

Benefits of brown rice include more protein and triple the fiber, and although it lacks certain essential amino acids, it hands-down beats white rice in nutrient value, with three times the iron and manganese, for example. When paired with complimentary plant and/or animal proteins, for example, beans and brown rice, you’re assured of complete nutrition.  (By the way, it’s not necessary to combine plant foods at each meal to be assured of obtaining all essential amino acids, just be sure to eat a variety of different plant foods including whole grains and legumes throughout the day.)

Mixing a half-cup of cooked white rice with a half-cup of cooked black beans boosts the nutrition significantly without changing the calorie count. Whereas a cup of white rice has only about 4 grams of protein, a cup of rice and beans has almost 10 grams of protein, about 8 grams of fiber… plus many more vitamins and minerals than rice alone.

And as far as “good” or “bad” for you, well… as part of a healthy diet, even white rice fits. In terms of weight, in countries like India and parts of the Middle East and even Latin America, where rice traditionally made up a very large percentage of calories in their diet, people are starting to eat less rice and the rates of obesity are soaring. What is happening? Surprisingly, lowering calories from rice could be linked to weight gain. When the traditional diet of beans and rice, a little meat, fish or chicken, some vegetables, and fruit (a diet low in added sugars and fats) is replaced with refined packaged foods, chips, salchipapas, and sugary beverages, then it’s a recipe for obesity.

Parboiled Rice – More Nutritious

Arroz Parbolizado (Precocido) – Parboiled Rice

Parboiled rice is more nutritious right out of the package. Because of special processing, it’s a better source of fiber, calcium, potassium and vitamin B-6 than regular white rice. For those who love white rice, but want the nutrition of brown, precocido is simply the best buy. Find it at Supermaxi for a few cents more per kilo, and it’s worth it. Learn more about parboiled rice here.

Since white rice has its husk, bran, and germ removed, and processed to make it bright and shiny, it’s also stripped of its nutrients. In the U.S. white rice is enriched with vitamins B1, B3, and iron, but here in Cuenca, it’s important to read the front of the package label. I visited my local supermercados and noted that there are both enriched and non-enriched rice for sale. Same price. Buy enriched.

Arroz blanco enriquecido
Enriched white rice

Rice Safety — The U.S.A. and Ecuador

In 2012, Consumer Reports reported on a study showing significant levels of inorganic arsenic – IA in a variety of rice and rice products sold in the USA, including popular rice products like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Gerber baby food and varieties of Uncle Ben’s rice. All rice wasn’t found to contain high levels of IA— there is a clear connection between geography and toxicity. Basmati rice from California has the lowest arsenic levels, but rice from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana contains the highest levels of IA, whether it is grown conventionally or organically (without added chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides).

[Arsenic occurs naturally in the soil – minerals in the earth’s crust get into soil and water through ordinary weathering processes but inorganic arsenic has been used for years in pesticides and wood preservatives and other industrial uses – and it has been shown to persist in the soil for more than 45 years.]

The journal Environmental Health Perspectives reported that during the reign of King Cotton, farmers in the south central United States controlled boll weevils with arsenic-based pesticides — unfortunately, residual arsenic still contaminates the soil. Today, rice grown in the fields where cotton once grew contains almost twice the arsenic compared to rice grown in California. The least amount of IA was found in brown rice from California, India, or Pakistan.

What about Ecuador? Lucky for us, I couldn’t locate any warnings about unacceptable arsenic levels in rice in Ecuador or anywhere in Latin America. According to OrganicLatinAmerica.com, “There are currently no sufficient data on which to base any recommendations to slow or stop the rice consumed is related to the levels of arsenic in rice and its potential risk to human health.”

Credit: Zero Latitude. Rice fields in Ecuador

Some of the worst offenders for arsenic are those processed foods made in North America from brown rice. Brown rice syrup, brown rice pasta, rice cakes and brown rice crisps all contained higher than acceptable levels. If you’re eating a “gluten-free” diet and indulging in these processed foods, eating even more than one serving daily could pose a risk of overexposure to IA.

If you’re living in the U.S. or consuming imported rice products here in Ecuador, lower any possible risk of over-exposure to IA by varying the type of grains you eat. And there are other reasons to vary your grains and not eat the same foods daily. As with all foods, variety means you are exposed to an array of important and beneficial micronutrients – vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals — and you lower your exposure to any single possible toxin.

Gluten-free grains, including amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and polenta (known as “corn grits” in the USA) contain much lower average levels of IA and they offer a variety of good nutrition – micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Wheat is a healthy alternative – for example, bulgur, barley, and faro contain gluten but have very little arsenic.

If you think that organic rice automatically makes it safer, unfortunately, it does not. Organically grown rice may have no pesticides, but rice sucks arsenic up from the soil the same way as conventional rice. However, in my research, I came across multiple recommendations for a Northern California organic rice company whose arsenic levels are very low – Lundberg Family Farms – read more here.

Precautions

Take some safety steps to avoid food poisoning from eating pre-cooked rice. Cooked rice should be cooled quickly and not left at room temperature. It should not be kept for more than three days in the fridge. It needs to be reheated very thoroughly. Cooked rice should never be reheated more than once.

When traveling in Ecuador vary your grains, but enjoy your rice! To manage the calories just say, una media porción de arroz, por favor.
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Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to her at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com

Sources

Consumer Reports. Arsenic in your food.

Environmental Health Perspectives. Food Safety: U.S. Rice Serves Up Arsenic. 

Livestrong.com. Parboiled Rice vs. Brown Rice Nutrition. 

Ricepedia. Rice around the world: Latin America and the Caribbean.

Organic Latin America. Message Rice Producers of USA.

USA Today. Report: U.S. coal power plants emit toxic air pollutants.

Whole Grains Council. Types of rice.