The Rice Debate: Brown Rice vs. White Rice

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The browner the better – so goes the common nutritional wisdom. That means you’re better to pick wholewheat bread over white, oatmeal over grits, and sweet potatoes over Irish.

Rice – possibly the world’s most eaten food – is no exception. But what’s the difference between brown and white rice, anyway? And is brown’s reputation for nutrition really deserved?

All rice begins brown

“Brown” and “white” describe the preparation rather than varieties; white rice is simply brown rice with certain bits taken off.

Each rice grain comes with four parts:

  • The chaff, or tough outer husk
  • The bran, a membrane between the husk and the kernel itself
  • The germ, the small “embryo” that grows into the new plant
  • Endosperm – the white bit – which is mostly starch

In rice processing, the chaff is the first to go. Even at this stage the rice is still brown, and only becomes white when the bran and germ are removed too.

A range of practical, aesthetic and cultural factors have made white rice more popular than brown. Its neutral flavour and texture (versus the nuttier, chewier brown rice) make it ideal as a base for dishes, and it lasts longer in storage – up to 30 years when properly sealed, according to a report by Utah State University. In some societies, brown rice is also perceived as being of “inferior” quality, and its health benefits are often not well known.

Get down with the brown

Nixing the bran and germ means nixing a lot of the nutrition. White rice contains very little fibre and basically no vitamins, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration.

  White rice (1 cup) Brown rice (1 cup)
Calories 242 218
Carbohydrates 53.2g 45.8g
Fat 0.4g 1.6g
Protein 4.4g 4.5g
Fibre 0.6g 3.5g

Don’t forget black and red

But there are some super-charged varieties of rice that deliver bigger nutritional bang for your grain. Un-hulled red rice, for example, has comparable calorie and vitamin levels as traditional brown rice, but with more fibre.

Chinese black rice – the so-called “forbidden rice” because it was once served only to Chinese royalty – has less fibre than red rice but is chock-full of anthocyanins, an antioxidant pigment more commonly associated with blueberries.

Before you get too excited, though, it’s worth noting that the health benefits of anthocyanins are still up for debate.

Rice 101

Now for a little background on the staple food source for half of the world’s population.

The robust, calorie-rich plant can grow in a all sorts of conditions. Although it thrives in water and is often flooded to drown out weeds and vermin, it can grow on slopes and in dry, upland climates.

The crop is most associated with Asia but in the 19th century the United States was actually the world’s leading exporter. Its dominance didn’t last long though: the American Civil War paired with the opening of the Suez Canal shifted the scales in favour of Asia. Today 90 percent of rice comes from the continent; China alone produced 208.6 million metric tonnes of rice (unmilled) in 2017, according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation data.

The International Rice Gene Bank has filed more than 127,000 rice varieties, but in culinary terms rice is generally divided into four categories: short-grain, medium-grain, long-grain and speciality.

American long-grain rice is the most common in the United States, while the even longer basmati rice is the favourite in Pakistan, India and Nepal.

Translucent, sticky medium-grain rice is common in sushi and other Japanese dishes, while the medium-grain bomba is popular in Spain.

For short-grain rice, arborio (named for an Italian town in its main growing region) is a favourite of Italy, and often found in risotto and rice pudding.

Finally, red rice, Chinese black rice and wild rice fall into the “speciality” category. Wild rice though is technically not a rice at all – it’s a distant botanical cousin originating in North America. The long, thin, dark grains are loaded with fibre and vitamins. Despite its name, “wild” rice is also usually cultivated.

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