Rice has been a staple in the human diet for millennia. It’s a traditional food but recently has also become an ingredient in many modern foods such as energy bars, snacks and drinks.
There are many different types of rice, some excellent for your health, some not so much. That’s why it’s impossible to say rice is either healthy or unhealthy, it all depends on what type you eat!
White rice is the most widely consumed of all the different varieties but it’s also the least healthy. To produce white rice, the grains are stripped of their outer layers – bran and germ – and then ‘polished’. That means most of the fibre, protein and some important B vitamins are lost in the process.
Although not common in the UK, people relying on white rice as a daily staple may develop a disease called beriberi, which is essentially vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. Prior to processing, rice contains vitamin B1 but processed white rice only has small amounts – not enough to be a reliable source!
White rice is also the only type of rice that is associated with an increased risk of some health conditions such as type 2 diabetes. It’s simply a refined grain offering little other than starch and whilst that’s useful for energy, it isn’t very nutritious.
There’s no need to completely replace all the white rice in your diet – if you love vegan sushi, the small amounts of white rice it contains won’t ruin your health. But if you’re a big rice-eater, it’s time to switch to brown rice!
Brown rice contains many more nutrients than white rice and is a healthy part of any diet. When we say people should eat wholegrains, brown rice belongs in that category.
It’s a good source of carbohydrates, including fibre, contains some valuable protein, essential B vitamins – thiamine (B1), niacin (B3), panthothenic acid (B5) and folate (B9) - and small amounts of minerals such as iron and calcium. Any dish you make with white rice can be made with brown rice so it’s an easy swap!
Wholegrains, including brown rice, should be a staple in our diets. If you have them on a regular basis, they can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer and help you maintain or achieve a healthy weight.
The red rice variety is also wholegrain and has all the benefits of brown rice and then some!
It gets its rich colour from pigments called anthocyanins, which are also excellent antioxidants and help reduce inflammation. It’s becoming more common but it’s still pricier than brown rice – so the get a healthier rice dish, combine the two and voila!
Black rice, originally from China, is also a wholegrain. Its black colour comes from the high concentration of anthocyanins – it has lots more than red rice so is even healthier. Compared to other rice types, it has almost twice as much protein so it’s a clear protein champion! The only downside is price but don’t despair – just like with red rice – mixing some black rice into brown rice makes for a cheaper yet healthier and prettier meal.
Wild rice is actually not rice at all but a member of the grass family and was traditionally grown ‘wild’ in isolated lakes and river beds in North America. It has long grains and nutty texture and you can usually find it mixed with other types of rice. Wild rice is as high in protein as black rice and has more zinc than any other rice so is certainly healthy!
Basmati is a fragrant variety of rice, slender and long-grained. It’s unique not just in flavour but also because it has a lower glycemic index than white rice, which means you digest it slower – and slower is better because you get a steadier energy supply. However, white basmati is processed the same way as other white rice and so lacks some important nutrients. In other words, white basmati may be a little better than white rice but brown basmati is undoubtedly the best of the bunch!
Isolated rice protein has become a popular ingredient in sports and fitness supplements. It’s made from brown rice treated with enzymes that separate the protein from carbohydrates. The resulting powder is then used in shakes, supplements and protein bars.
You need protein powders only if you’re aiming to achieve serious athletic or bodybuilding results but there’s absolutely no need for them if you just go to the gym a few times a week for a workout. A healthy diet provides more than enough protein.
If you think your physical endeavours call for more protein, rice protein has a good spectrum of amino acids and can be a useful addition to your athletic routine but it has a distinctive flavour and not everyone is a fan.
Arsenic in rice – should we worry?
Rice absorbs arsenic from the environment, especially where arsenic-containing pesticides and fertilizers are regularly used. It’s become a hot topic - but don’t panic just yet!
Clever scientists found that boiling rice in plenty of water and then discarding the water afterwards removes 50-60 per cent of arsenic. Simply boil it like pasta and drain! It goes against what most of us are used to doing but it works. If you use brown or another type of wholegrain rice, you won’t lose any nutrients so it’s a good strategy.
Rice is often used in foods and drinks developed specifically for children. To address the arsenic issue, the Food Standards Agency has imposed strict criteria for rice and rice products intended for infants and young children. They also advise that toddlers and young children (ages 1 to 4.5 years) should not be given conventional rice drinks – this caution is in place because young children tend to drink significantly more milk-like drinks relative to their bodyweight. Although conventional rice drinks are very watery and contain only trace amounts of arsenic (and so are safe for adults), where young children are concerned, caution is called for.