Where once we served up fluffy mounds of white rice without a care, we now know that eating whole grains like brown rice is an important part of a healthy diet. Whether we want to or not, we may even feel pressured to give up the white stuff entirely.
But that rice-related guilt is unnecessary, according to Maggie Morgan, registered dietitian at CoreLife Novant Health - Ardmore, in Winston-Salem. Even if brown rice does bring more to the table nutritionally than white, there’s still a place for both in most pantries.
“Deciding between white rice and brown is a personal choice, and it can be based on many factors, including health, cultural heritage and finances,” Morgan said. “So, instead of ruling in favor of one or the other, what’s more important to me is helping people understand the differences between them, so they can weigh the pros and cons for themselves.”
To help you decide whether white or brown rice — or both — is best for you, we asked Morgan about the benefits of rice in general, and how each type can help or hinder our health. Keep reading for her answers. And don’t miss the delicious brown- and white-rice-specific recipes at the end!
What is rice — and how many kinds are there?
Rice is a starchy grain produced by a grass plant that thrives in warm, wet environments. It has been consumed by humans for thousands of years, and serves as a staple food for more than 3.5 billion people around the world.
White and brown rice are the most common varieties on our store shelves, but there are more than 8,000 kinds of rice, including a whole spectrum of colors, such as red, purple and black. You can also find different grain types, such as long grain, short grain, “fragrant” (like jasmine and basmati) and wild rice.
After the grain is harvested, processed and packaged, however, most of the rice we eat can be sorted into two categories: White and brown.
How are white and brown rice different?
Brown rice is a whole grain, consisting of three parts: a fibrous outer layer (called the germ), a middle layer (the bran) and a starchy center (the endosperm).
White rice is basically a processed version of brown rice. To make white rice, manufacturers remove the outer two layers of the original grain, leaving only the starchy center. This results in a more shelf-stable product with a milder flavor that meshes well with other ingredients in certain recipes.
White rice is also softer, cooks faster and often costs less. However, the processing it undergoes removes much of what makes rice good for you: vitamins, minerals and fiber. So manufacturers of white rice usually enrich it in an effort to replace some of those nutrients.
How healthy is brown rice?
Brown rice is minimally processed (just washed and packaged), so it is still a whole grain containing all of its original fiber, vitamins and minerals, including:
- Selenium, which supports our immune systems, and protects against cell damage and infections.
- Magnesium, which helps our blood clot when we’re injured, improves muscle health and aids in bone development.
- Folate, which helps create genetic material and supports cell division, among other things. Folate is often recommended for pregnant women, but it’s good for everyone.
Brown rice is also rich in dietary fiber, which can help lower cholesterol, lower high blood pressure and support the good bacteria in your gut. Fiber also helps ward off constipation and promotes weight loss by helping you feel full longer.
Need help reaching your health goals? Find a registered dietitian.
Does white rice offer any benefits?
Definitely. Carbs have been demonized by our diet culture and media, but carbohydrates are essential for life. They're the nutrient that gives us energy, the thing that allows us to function throughout our day-to-day lives. So, white rice as a carbohydrate with your meal is healthy for most people, whether it has fiber or not. Plus, because it’s almost always enriched, it does contain some nutrients.
Also, brown rice’s high insoluble fiber content promotes more regular bowel movements. This could actually exacerbate certain problems related to illnesses like diverticulitis or irritable bowel syndrome, which require a low-fiber diet to calm the digestive system and prevent diarrhea. For patients dealing with those issues, I would recommend white rice over brown.
Do brown and white rice affect blood sugar differently?
When manufacturing white rice, parts of the grain are stripped away, but the process does not remove any of the carbohydrates. So, brown and white rice are equal in terms of carbs — but not in their effect on your blood sugar.
That’s because fiber — which has been stripped from white rice, but remains in brown rice — slows digestion, preventing rapid blood-sugar spikes. This is helpful when you’re trying to manage or control your blood sugar, and can even reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes. So, for people dealing with any blood sugar issues, I usually recommend brown rice.
What about flavor?
When it comes to flavor, I find brown rice — and whole wheat products in general — tend to have a bit of a negative reputation. A lot of that probably stems from the fact that so many of us grew up eating white bread and white rice products.
Sometimes you do want your grain to be a little bit blander so it can meld with the flavors in a recipe. Overall, though, I find that once we get past our initial resistance to trying new things, people often prefer the flavor and texture of brown rice.
Bottom line: Brown rice or white?
The answer really depends on your personal circumstances and preferences. In terms of health, if you have type 2 diabetes, prediabetes or other blood-sugar concerns, you’d want to choose brown rice. But, if you need to follow a low-fiber diet, white rice would be a better option.
There’s also a financial factor. Because processed white rice lasts longer on grocery store shelves, it usually costs less than brown. So, if you're on a limited income, I’d say the difference between the two isn’t dramatic enough to worry about paying more for brown rice.
Lemon Rice Pilaf
- 1 cup uncooked long grain white rice
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup sliced celery
- 1 cup thinly slice green onions
- 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
Cook rice according to directions on package.
When rice is nearly done, heat butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add celery and onions, and cook until tender.
Add cooked rice, lemon zest, salt and pepper to skillet, and toss lightly. Cook until all ingredients are heated through.
Nutrition facts (makes six 3/4-cup servings): 161 calories, 4.9 grams fat (0.8 grams saturated fat), 0 milligrams cholesterol, 405 milligrams sodium, 26.6 grams carbohydrate (0.7 grams sugars, 1.2 grams fiber), 2.7 grams protein.
(Adapted from: tasteofhome.com/recipes/lemon-rice-pilaf/)
Toasted Brown Rice with Mushrooms and Thyme
- 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup uncooked brown rice
- 1 cup vegetable broth
- 1 cup water
- 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced (or any other type of mushroom you prefer)
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
- 3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
Heat 1/2 teaspoon olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for about five minutes, until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 30 more seconds.
Add the uncooked rice and sauté, stirring constantly, for one minute. Then, stir in the vegetable broth and water. Bring to a boil.
Cover saucepan and reduce heat to low. Allow to continue cooking for about 35 minutes, or until all of the liquid is absorbed. (Note: Rice cooking times can vary, so check the directions on your package).
While rice is cooking, heat remaining teaspoon of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Next, add the mushrooms and cook for 4-5 minutes, until they begin to brown. Stir in the thyme and cook for 30 more seconds. Remove from heat.
Once the rice is cooked, stir in the mushroom and thyme mixture. Add parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and serve while warm.
Nutrition facts (makes six 1/2-cup servings): 149 calories, 2.4 grams fat (0.4 grams saturated fat), 0 milligrams cholesterol, 231 milligrams sodium, 27.5 grams carbohydrates (1.2 grams sugars, 1.8 grams fiber), 4.4 grams protein.
(Adapted from: https://www.cookincanuck.com/wprm_print/39243)