Increasingly, health conscious people are choosing “brown rice” over “white rice”. Compared to years ago, brown rice is more available in restaurants these days.
But is it really as healthy as it’s touted to be? Some reasons about why brown rice may not be healthy that is going around:
- rice is a modern food that is not well tolerated by the human body
- all grains are “carbs” and high glycemic index and are not suited for those who need to manage their blood sugar, who want to lose weight or gain lean muscle
- rice (brown or white) contains gluten <really?>
- brown rice contains “anti-nutrients” and white rice is actually better than brown for that reason
I hope this article will clear some confusion and encourage you to do your own research and form your own judgment.
What is “brown rice”?
Rice is a member of the grass family and it is the seed part of the grass plant. In the beginning, all rice were “brown”, or unpolished. Only the husk was removed when our ancestors started eating this grain. “White rice” is milled and polished “brown rice”. Brown rice originally contains the germ and bran of the rice grain. (Rice has become increasingly more polished over the years. The white rice eaten by our grandparents and parents were less polished than the kind of white rice we consume today.)
Is rice a “modern” food?
It depends on how you define “modern”.
Based on archaeological evidence, rice cultivation and domestication is likely to have originated in China around 10,000 years ago or even earlier. (The wild growth of rice dates back even further in India and China.) Evidence of rice cultivation from thousands of years ago has been found in other parts of the world, including Africa. The rise of modern civilisation is said to coincide with the rise of grain diet.
Rice was also known to the Classical world, being imported from Egypt, and perhaps west Asia. It was known to Greece by returning soldiers from Alexander the Great’s military expedition to Asia. Large deposits of rice from the first century A.D. have been found in Roman camps in Germany. (Source: Wiki)
So whether your body can recognize rice and be able to digest it depends on whether your ancestors were used to it.
How essential is rice to Chinese people?
In Chinese, “eat” means “eat rice”. And rice has been “brown” in most our long history. (This will be explained more in this article.)
The Chinese character for vitality or “Jing” (精) is made up of the characters “米” (rice) and “青” (plant or vegetables). The Chinese character for energy or “Chi” (氣) is made up of the characters “气” (breath/breathing) and “米” (rice).
So ancient Chinese obviously believed that vitality and energy depends on proper breathing, a plant based diet, and (brown) rice!
In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), (brown) rice is an important source of vital “chi”, fuel and essential for gut function and up keeping of body functions. It was never the only food eaten but always complemented with other plant-based foods like beans and legumes, and a small amount of animal food.
Is Brown Rice healthier than White (polished) Rice?
Brown rice is a “whole” food with complete package of nutrients (like most whole foods) designed and perfected by nature from a long time of interaction between human beings and nature. Typically brown rice has 3 to 4 times the fibre of its white variety and 4 to 5 times the magnesium. Many other nutrients like iron, selenium (an antioxidant) and most amino acids are lost in processing.
Brown rice is high in many B vitamins, including B12, which are essential to healthy nerve function. Rice bran oil provides healthy fat and helps the body to assimilate fat-soluble nutrients and helps lower LDL cholesterol. It reduces the need for excessive meat because it provides fat, protein and fibre, which contribute to satiety.
While the type of rice and level of polishing makes a difference, in general brown rice has much lower glycemic index than white rice. The starch in brown rice takes longer time to turn into sugar and so it is a slow release source of fuel. Those who need to watch their blood sugar levels (diabetics, pre-diabetics, those with low energy and food cravings, those with higher risk of cardiovascular challenges and so on) would benefit most from choosing brown rice over white rice, or mixing the two at least.
If brown rice is so good for us, why do we eat white rice?
Rice polishing only came to the scene during the Tang Dynasty, which is around 1000 years ago, but it was not widely available. White rice was a special food only the rich could afford. While polishing was not as complete as it is now (so fewer nutrients were lost), there is record of diseases (that have similar symptoms as diabetes and/or arthritis today) associated with white rice consumption even in old Chinese historical texts.
White rice, with all its fat containing parts removed, is more shelf stable, which suits commercial purposes. Brown rice has about half (6 month) the shelf life as white rice (one year). Most factories now are optimized to process white rice. This is why white rice has become cheaper than brown rice since the industrial age, despite the saving of energy in processing brown rice.
However the cost to the environment and to our health will lower if more people demand brown rice over white rice. (In fact rice crops produce more food energy and protein supply per space required than wheat and maize. So it’s a really efficient food to feed the planet – in fact half of the world’s population currently uses rice as their staple.)
Is brown rice harder to digest compared to white rice? Should one be worried about phytic acid in brown rice?
The reason why brown rice is said to be harder to digest compared to white rice is due to the phytic acids and enzyme inhibitors (e.g. lectins) on the rice bran, said to block absorption of vitamins and minerals.
Phytic acids are storage house of phosphorus and is present in all plant food. While they bind with certain minerals in the gut, they also bind with certain harmful heavy metals.
Phytic acids are in fact present in practically all plant-based foods. Many long living peoples on the planet have traditionally eaten a high plant-based diet. So how have they managed?
First, brown rice, compared to other grains, beans and legumes, which also contain phytic acids, have much lower levels of phytic acids to start with.
The reason phytic acids and enzyme inhibitors are present on the surface of grains and legumes is that they protect the plant by making itself hard-to-digest and unattractive to animals that may eat it.
PREPARATION is key in making brown rice bio-available to the human body. (Cooking has its place in a healthy diet just as raw food also has its place. Balance is key.)
Pre-soaking, sprouting, fermenting and cooking are how traditional peoples have done to make grains or other plant foods (that we now know contain phytic acids) digestible.
For general cooking, to release the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, soaking for 7 to 8 hours is recommended. Soaking in a an acid solution like with vinegar or lemon juice is more helpful and is recommended for someone who’s gut function is compromised and is experiencing nutrient deficiency as a result.
And more water in cooking is required for brown rice than white rice – experiment and find what works for you.
The rice germ is nutrient-dense and when soaked is activated. The germ holds the “potential” for the rice to germinate into a new plant, with the right conditions. Industrial polishing removes it for shelf life purpose.
To further activate the nutrients in the brown rice, one can sprout it. It can take a few rounds of soaking (and discarding water) but it helps further in turning protein into amino acids, which makes the rice more nutritious. (There are more health foods now made from “sprouted” brown rice or other nuts, seeds and so on, for those who are too busy to do their own sprouting.)
Just to be clear, there is no benefit in soaking white rice really because it does not have the “live” part of rice anymore.
The importance of chewing is often neglected in health and nutrition education. Don’t forget that generally people in the past did not eat as hurriedly as we do now!
The chewing action activates production of digestive enzymes (metabolic catalysts) and improves digestion and absorption of everything you are eating, not just rice. Chewing also prevents overeating, and encourages a steady conversion of sugar in our blood.
Does rice contain gluten?
Rice does NOT contain gluten. Unless it has been contaminated in the growing and processing. But for those who are following a gluten-free diet, rice is considered safe. (Even “glutinous” rice does not contain gluten – yes it’s a bit confusing!) Gluten is the “sticky ” protein present mostly in wheat berries, but also in a smaller way in some other grains. Genetic modification has made wheat more unrecognizable to the human body and may cause digestive issues.
In the next article, we will discuss if there is any place for white rice in a healthy diet, and alternatives to grains in a balanced diet.