Is white rice ‘bad?’ Myths and facts about rice

Mar 1, 2018 | 11 comments

A reader asked me, “Is white rice good or bad?  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.

Scientists 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. The Portuguese and their African slaves introduced it at about the same time to Colonial Brazil. Today, rice is the third-highest agricultural commodity grown globally.

“Good” or “Bad?”  Rice Nutrition

Let’s first talk whole grain (or brown) rice compared to 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.”

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Nutrition Facts: 1 cup cooked

White Rice (long-grain): 205 calories   4.25 g protein   -less than 1 g fiber

Brown Rice: 216 calories   5 g protein   3 g fiber

Although brown rice has a bit more protein, it still lacks certain essential amino acids. However, when paired with complimentary plant and/or animal proteins, for example, beans and rice, you’re assured of complete nutrition.

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. A cup of rice and beans has almost 10 grams of protein, about 8 grams of fiber… and many more vitamins and minerals than rice alone.

And as far as “good” or “bad” for you, well… as part of a healthy diet, 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 is 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

Parboiled rice at Supermaxi

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. Buy at Supermaxi for a few cents more per kilo. 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. By law in the U.S., white rice is enriched with vitamins B1, B3, and iron, but I visited my local supermercados and noted that there are both enriched and non-enriched rice for sale. Same price. Buy enriched.

A rice field in Ecuador.

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.

Rice is a staple of Ecuadorian meals but Ecuadorians eat a fraction as much of it as Asians.

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.”

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 for 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 one 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.

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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.

Sources

Consumer Reports. Arsenic in your food.https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/11/arsenic-in-your-food/index.htm

Environmental Health Perspectives.Food Safety: U.S. Rice Serves Up Arsenic. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1892142/

Livestrong.com. Parboiled Rice vs. Brown Rice Nutrition. https://www.livestrong.com/article/274189-parboiled-rice-vs-brown-rice-nutrition-health-benefits/

Ricepedia. Latin America and the Caribbean.http://ricepedia.org/rice-around-the-world/latin-america-and-the-caribbean

Organic Latin America.http://organiclatinamerica.com.ar/en/mensaje-de-los-productores-de-arroz-de-usa/

USA Today. Report: U.S. coal power plants emit toxic air pollutants.http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2011/03/coal-power-plants-air-pollution/1#.Vb98Grc5GHs

Whole Grains Council.Types of rice.https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/easy-ways-enjoy-whole-grains/grain-month-calendar/wild-rice-september-grain-month-0

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