Rice, in one form or another, is one of the most important staple foods in the world and has been for possibly thousands of years. Today, it supplies around 20 percent of the world’s food energy. The Asia-Pacific region of the world produces and consumes 90 percent of the rice on the planet, and in the U.S., rice is a $2.2 billion -a-year-industry in exports alone.
Today, basmati rice from India, jasmine from Thailand, and Arborio from Italy are growing in popularity among the more than 40,000 types, including long-, medium-, and short-grain white, as well as brown rice, yellow rice, purple, red, black, and shades in between, each with subtle textures and flavor variations.
These aromatic varieties can cost twice as much as plain white rice.
You may have heard brown rice is better for you than the white version. Technically, that’s true, but how it’s grown should also be taken into consideration, because it’s extremely important to keep abreast of new information and to know the path foods have taken on the way to your table.
Wild Rice Provides Superior Macronutrients Compared to White
White rice provides more thiamin (25 percent of the recommended daily value, DV), folic acid, and calcium, but wild rice has a more extensive nutritional profile overall, imparting 10 percent of the DV in folate, vitamin B6 and niacin, and eight percent each in riboflavin in every one-cup serving.
Comparatively speaking, wild rice is more nutrient-dense, plus it has significantly fewer calories and carbohydrates than white rice.
At the same time, it provides three times the fiber of white rice and an impressive amount (and higher quality) of protein due to essential amino acids such as methionine and lysine.
“Essential” means they can’t be synthesized by the body and must come from an outside source.1
Lysine has been referred to as one of the building blocks of protein, vital for optimal growth and converting fatty acids into energy, as well as lowering cholesterol and forming collagen for developing strong bones, tissues, tendons, cartilage, and skin.
It also prevents the amount of calcium lost in the urine and may even help prevent the bone loss known to occur with osteoporosis.2
Methionine, too, is important for forming cartilage, and can be particularly helpful for arthritis sufferers by boosting sulfur production. It has a number of other positive uses throughout the system, such as dissolving fats in your liver. It’s also an anti-inflammatory, and reduces pain as well as hair loss.3
Minerals are another major attribute in wild rice. That same single-cup serving provides 15 percent of the phosphorus you need in one day, along with the same amount of zinc (both essential for optimal heart, nerve, and muscle function) and magnesium.
Wild rice is a better choice for people wanting to lose weight, because it makes you feel full longer.
How Does Brown Rice Stack up to White Rice?
Ten percent of the daily recommended protein, as well as 14 percent of the fiber, is contained in a one-cup serving of brown rice. Brown rice also contains very healthy amounts of selenium, magnesium, and phosphorus, along with niacin, vitamin B6, and thiamin.
It’s the manganese content, however, that’s over the top – 88 percent of what you need in one day is present in just one serving. This mineral turns carbohydrates and proteins into energy, supports the nervous system, and produces cholesterol to generate sex hormones.
Manganese is also part of a key enzyme called superoxide dismutase, located in the mitochondria, and plays a vital role in protecting cells from free radical damage.
What other benefits do these nutrients in brown rice have for your body? According to researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH):4
“Brown rice is beneficial to the cardiovascular system, digestive system, brain, and nervous system. It is loaded with powerful antioxidants which provide relief from a range of ailments such as hypertension, unhealthy levels of cholesterol, stress, mental depression, and skin disorders.
High nutritional content in brown rice proves effective in various medical conditions such as cancer, obesity, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders, and insomnia. It has anti-depressant properties and helps maintain healthy bones and stronger immune system.”
Exchanging White Rice for Brown May Help Lower Your Type 2 Diabetes Risk
White rice is much more plentiful and available on supermarket shelves than brown, black, or wild rice, and it’s less expensive. But, studies find that eating white rice four or five times a week is linked to heightened type 2 diabetes risk, while eating two to four servings of brown rice had the opposite effect.
Many are unaware that replacing white rice with the brown variety could help lower their type 2 diabetes risk. HSPH also noted:5
“Brown rice is superior to white rice when it comes to fiber content, minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals, and it often does not generate as large an increase in blood sugar levels after a meal.
Milling and polishing brown rice removes most vitamins and minerals. In addition, milling strips away most of its fiber, which helps deter diabetes by slowing the rush of sugar (glucose) into the bloodstream.”
If Brown Rice Is Good, Is Black Rice Better?
Sometimes called “purple” or “forbidden” rice, black rice is an Asian heirloom variety that brings the same benefits as brown rice, but along with those you also get a set of powerful antioxidants.
Black rice has an outer shell like brown rice, making it a little more time-intensive to cook than white rice, but soaking it for an hour helps speed up the process.
Interestingly, it’s possible that the darker the rice, the more potent its nutrients. Black rice, as an example, has been found to contain anthocyanins with nutritional attributes similar to those found in blueberries and blackberries.
That’s really good news, since studies show that anthocyanins fight a number of serious health issues, such as cancer and heart disease.6
Researchers tested black rice bran and found it was a “useful therapeutic agent for the treatment and prevention of diseases associated with chronic inflammation.” Black rice also decreased dermatitis symptoms in studies, while brown rice did not.7
A Scary New Play: ‘Arsenic and Today’s Rice’
In 2012, following the release of a report discussing arsenic being found in apple and grape juice, Consumer Reports8 conducted numerous tests on rice:
“In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms. We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern.
Moreover, the foods we checked are popular staples, eaten by adults and children alike.”
Foods tested included Rice Krispies cereal, which had relatively low levels of arsenic at 2.3 to 2.6 micrograms per serving, and Trader Joe’s Organic Brown Pasta Fusilli, which tested higher – from 5.9 to 6.9 micrograms per serving.
Perhaps most disturbing is that “worrisome” arsenic levels were also found in infant cereals for babies between 4 and 12 months old.
A 2009 to 2010 EPA study lists rice as having a 17 percent inorganic arsenic level behind fruits and fruit juices, which had 18 percent, and vegetables with 24 percent.9
While the USA Rice Federation says there’s nothing to be concerned about because inorganic arsenic is a “natural substance,” the Consumer Reports article maintains that:
“Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products we analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.
A Center for Public Integrity article also reported:
“EPA scientists have concluded that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic each day, 730 of them eventually would get lung or bladder cancer.”10
How Did Arsenic Get into the Rice?
The arsenic in rice is due to the rice being grown in contaminated soils. How arsenic got in the soil is a study in history. More often than not, farming operations have involved the addition of harmful toxins in pesticides and herbicides (not to mention the confined animal feeding operations – CAFOs – which in recent decades have made food production a far different scenario from the local, sustainable farm model most informed food consumers would hope for.
As the Consumer Reports article explains:
“Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains… (The) south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.”
Due to the health benefits provided by all types of rice, it may not make sense for everyone to eliminate it from their diets entirely. A recommendation, however, would be to reach for organic varieties as often as possible, whether it’s organic white, brown, or wild rice, and if you’re not sure of the source, limit your consumption to two servings per week to minimize your risk of arsenic exposure.
Also, ensure all your carbohydrate sources are as unprocessed as possible, free of pesticides and chemical additives, and not genetically modified.