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White Rice vs. Brown Rice?  Which is better or are they both the same?

Did you know there is a rice debate?  Which is better for you… brown or white rice?  Or are they same?  This week I delved into this topic to see just what the science shows.

I’m really into nutrition. My kind friends put up with a lot of nutrition-centric shares and posts on Facebook. So, when I recently made dinner for a friend, she was a little surprised to see plain ol’ white rice on the menu. “Isn’t brown rice healthier?”

It’s a simple question that most people would quickly answer “Yes! Brown rice is WAY healthier than white rice.” I don’t disagree, but I don’t completely agree either. Part of me feels busted when I serve white rice, but I also know that there is more to the brown vs. white rice debate than most people usually hear.

Today, we’re going to talk about some of the facts about white rice and brown rice. Then you can decide for yourself which is better for your lifestyle.

What’s the Difference?

White rice and brown rice are the exact same grain. Brown rice is the whole grain, unmodified version. White rice is the endosperm of the rice grain; the bran and germ have been removed. The endosperm houses all the starch. The bran is the fiber. The germ contains the oils.

What about nutritional differences? Here are a few facts, the good and the bad, about brown rice and white rice:

Brown Rice Facts

The Good

The Bad

higher fiber than white rice (3 g per serving)

contains higher levels of arsenic than white rice (7 mcg per serving)

more nutrients

short shelf life- oils in the germ oxidize and become rancid after 1-6 months

unprocessed

higher in phytic acid (0.99%), an antinutrient that prevent your body from absorbing minerals (zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium)

small amount of polyunsaturated fats

more pesticide exposure (non-organic)

White Rice Facts

The Good

The Bad

less arsenic than brown rice (3.6 mcg per serving)

low fiber (0.5 g per serving)

longer shelf life (1-3 years) due to lack of oils

processed, sometimes coated – check your brand for details

less phytic acid (0.60%)

high glycemic index (due to lower fiber)

Arsenic in Rice?

I learned that ALL rice contains some level of arsenic, even organically grown rice. Since it is naturally occurring in soil, water, and air, the rice absorbs it. More arsenic is found in rice than some other grains, fruits, and vegetables, because of the way the rice plant processes it. There are two types of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic is not a big concern. Inorganic, however, is toxic and has been linked to cancers and heart disease. Rice has inorganic arsenic.

I checked the FDA’s site for more information about arsenic. The FDA sets limits on the amount of arsenic allowed in our water (10 parts per billion), but it has no limits on the amount of arsenic found in foods or food products. It’s completely unregulated. However, the FDA is aware of the arsenic issue and is currently running a risk assessment. In a prior study, the FDA found that the arsenic levels in rice “were too low to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects.”

rice cerealWhat about infant rice cereal? It, too, contains arsenic (0.1 mcg per 4 tablespoon serving). The FDA states:

“According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no medical evidence that rice cereal has any advantage over other cereal grains as a first solid food and infants would likely benefit from an array of grain cereals.”

If arsenic in rice cereal concerns you, consider trying a different food for your babies. I have three little ones, and my first two I started with the traditional rice cereal blend. My third child? His first food was avocado. In fact, I never gave him rice cereal. Although it is traditional, it is not necessary. (Personal note: he is, by far, my most adventurous eater and still devours avocados.)

What to do about arsenic in rice?

Rinse. Thoroughly rinsing rice and cooking it in volumes of water five to six times that of the rice can reduce up to half of the arsenic content.

Choice. White rice has less arsenic than brown rice. If you are sensitive to arsenic or have had overexposure in the past, limit foods that may contain higher levels of arsenic. Watch out for additional rice products as ingredients (rice flour, rice bran).

Variety. The FDA says that there’s not enough arsenic in a serving of rice to cause short-term effects. What about a serving every day? What about long-term effects? Since we know rice contains arsenic and arsenic is toxic, limiting rice is a smart step. Don’t fear it, but practice variety. Switch up your grains.

Anti-Nutrients: Phytic Acid

Have you heard of phytic acid before? Phytic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in many foods…many natural, healthy foods. It’s an “antinutrient”, meaning that it prevents the absorption of good nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. This is a dietary concern, but it is also a concern for dental and bone health, as mineral depletion weakens tooth enamel and bone density. Unexplained cavities? Phytic acid may be the culprit.

The relative amount of phytic acid in rice is not very high when compared to other foods, but it is still considered a “high phytic acid” food. Almonds contain up to 3.22% phytic acid. Brown rice contains up to 0.99%; white rice contains up to 0.60% phytic acid. Soaking the grain will help remove some of the phytic acid. However, removing it from brown rice is not as easy as removing it from other foods. Thankfully, other smart people have done the research for us. If you’re interested in removing phytic acid from your brown rice, here is a detailed explanation on how to do it most effectively.

White Rice Processing

riceSome people say they prefer the taste of brown rice over white rice. Me? Not so much. I’ve always prefered white rice. So when our family’s food habits began to change, I wanted to learn how white rice is made and if it’s too processed to keep in my diet.

White rice is made when the outer layers of the rice grain, the bran and the germ, have been removed. These layers also contain a good bit of the nutrients (not all the nutrients) thiamine, niacin, and iron. Some rice manufacturers will supplement their rice by adding these nutrients back in, making “enriched rice”. If your rice has been enriched, it will be listed in the ingredients. Some white rices have been polished or coated with glucose and other materials.

Not all white rice is enriched or coated. The non-enriched, uncoated white rice I found in my pantry still contained 10% daily value of iron per ¼ cup serving, so non-enriched white rice is not completely devoid of nutrients. Have you checked your favorite rice? Research your brand and find out how they process their rice. If enriched grains and processed coatings concern you, rest assured there are plenty of other options on the store shelves.

What about organic rice?

Rice is a pretty heavily sprayed crop. Conventionally grown rice is typically sprayed with piperonyl butoxide – a known hormone disruptor, bee toxin, and possible carcinogen. It’s not clear how much of the pesticide is absorbed into the grain, but the outer layers of the rice are most likely to contain the pesticide residue. What are your options for avoiding pesticide exposure in rice?

Best choice: buy an organic rice and organic rice products

Better choice: opt for a white rice when organic brown is not available

Good choice: rinse your rice thoroughly before using and limit servings

Perspective

Nutritional – Brown rice and white rice are both starches, containing the same amount of starch. If you’re serving rice with a meal, the additional foods will add fiber, lower the glycemic load, and add nutrients. As part of a whole meal, I don’t feel that white rice vs. brown rice is a pivotal point. It’s a starch, be it brown or white. If you’re only eating rice and nothing else, the extra fiber and nutrients in brown rice will be important.

Toxicity – Rice contains toxic arsenic and can contain toxic pesticides. You can avoid pesticides by choosing an organic rice, but it will still have arsenic. White rice has less arsenic. An organic white rice will have the least toxins.

What are your thoughts about brown rice vs. white rice? Will you make any changes to your pantry?

The is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.

    • Donna

      Thank you very much – I have wondered about rice for a long time.

    • pdnr

      I will at the very least, rinse my rice before cooking it. I’ve never done that before. Thanks!

    • Beagle

      I buy organic brown rice and organic quinoa at the health food store. I cook them separately, then mix them, throwing in any white rice cooked the night before ( my family won’t eat brown or quinoa). I then package in reusable 1/2-cup containers and freeze. I make a big enough batch for several meals so a minute in the microwave gives me the basis for lots of healthy meals.

    • Lana

      I keep both on hand but I prefer the taste of brown rice. Hubby likes white rice. I just try to mix it up and use whatever works best in a dish.

    • Abby

      My thoughts about rice, and all food in general, is that organic has not been proven any healthier than conventionally grown crops. If anything, the labeling practices are all over the place and the chances of getting sick from organically grown produce is much higher from the practice of using manure as fertilizer, the source of e.coli. I know you are doing research but most of the general internet research on this subject is skewed. The only research you can really trust is peer reviewed journal published articles – all of which confirm the safety of our food supply. I have a degree in agriculture and have taught this subject to middle and high school students – so my background knowledge is not from the internet. Choosing to go organic does not bother me (to each his own and we have that luxury in America) but it does bother me that there is such vast misinformation on this subject and I am angered when people take an anti GMO stance when that proven safe technology is what allows us an abundant food supply and has saved millions from starvation in other countries. I am posting on here because I know that you won’t hear much from this side of the table and from people that have an agricultural background.
      Back to the rice – in a food science in-service class I took a few years ago we learned that the slow cooking brown rice is the type that has the most nutritional value. The quick brown rice is really no different from the quick cooking white rice.

    • erin

      Great post!!