My girlfriend and I make a lot of rice when we cook. The trouble is, she likes brown rice for health reasons and I like white rice for yummy reasons. I know brown rice is supposed to be "healthier" than white rice, but is it so much healthier that I need to make the switch?
Photo by John Campbell.
Brown rice and white rice are really the same grain - the only difference being that white rice has been milled more to remove everything but the white endosperm portion of the grain. What's left on brown rice is the bran and germ in addition to the inner endosperm. This leaves the grain looking brown, and as we all know, people believe that brown versions of things are more nutritional: Brown rice, wheat bread, wheat pasta and so on. But am I really wrecking my diet by choosing white rice over brown rice? Not really! Let me explain.
Brown rice has more fibre and protein than white rice, which is good, but brown rice also has more calories, more carbs and more fat than white rice, as well. If you're just looking at the numbers, white rice seems slightly healthier. That said, white rice has a higher glycemic index, meaning your body breaks it down faster, creating higher levels of blood glucose and promoting higher levels of insulin response. That can be troubling for those at risk of type 2 diabetes, but not a big deal for others. Brown rice is packed with more nutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, selenium, copper and potassium. But a lot of white rice is enriched, which helps close the nutrient gap between the two. All told, these two versions of the same grain are neck and neck. In fact, one 1996 study out of Portugal found there to be no "evidence that the brown rice diet is better than the diet based on white rice", despite the higher nutrient contents of brown rice.
Now let's talk phytate, something brown rice has but white rice doesn't. Phytic acid is considered an "anti-nutrient" that reduces your body's ability to absorb beneficial nutrients because it has a strong binding affinity to important minerals. For example, when iron and zinc bind to phytic acid, they become insoluble and are difficult for your intestines to absorb. Phytic acid also affects your nitrogen levels and protein digestibility, according to one 1987 study out of Japan:
The nitrogen balance was negative on both diets, but more negative on the brown rice diet. The phosphorus balance on the brown rice diet was significantly negative, but other minerals were not affected by the diet. The levels of cholesterol and minerals in the plasma were not significantly different on the polished rice diet and the brown rice diet. Comparing these results with data on standard protein intake (Miyoshi, H. et al (1986) J. Nutr. Sci. Vitaminol., 32, 581-589.), we concluded that brown rice reduced protein digestibility and nitrogen balance.
There's also the issue of arsenic in rice. Consumer Reports found that brown rice tends to have more arsenic when compared to white rice of the same origin. White rice does still have traces of arsenic, sure, but brown rice has more overall. Too much arsenic, if you weren't sure, is not good for you. Keep in mind, though, these phytate and arsenic levels aren't going to kill you or totally ruin your diet after a few bites. The FDA points out that eating reasonable amounts of any type of rice is completely fine, as long as you try to maintain a well-balanced diet.
At the end of the day, brown rice and white rice are at a stalemate. They each have very minor advantages over the other, but there's nothing that stands out and says one is better than the other in regards to your health. If you're at risk of diabetes, studies suggest opting for brown rice over white rice can reduce that risk, but otherwise it's a toss up. So, eat whatever kind of rice you want, as long as it's in moderation. After all, too much of either type of rice isn't going to be great for you in the long run. As for me, I'll stick to my tasty white rice come meal time!
This story has been updated since its original publication.