I switched over to white rice years ago, after realizing one basic thing: I liked it better. White rice kinda melts in my mouth after I chew it a little bit. Brown rice takes more chewing and processing. I’m not a cow and I don’t have time to chew all day, so based on this, I decided that white rice is an easier option for me. Of course, chewing your food for longer and trying to transition to herbivore status is a noble endeavor–as all vegans would testify–and it may help you lose weight, but is it healthier? That’s the question that will be answered in this post.
Specifically, we’re going to compare the glycemic index of brown vs. white rice, nutrient composition, digestibility, and finally, factor in ancestral practices.
But First, Anatomy
Anatomically, the difference between white rice and brown rice is fairly straightforward. Like any grain, there is a hull, which is removed, the bran, the germ layer, and finally the endosperm. Brown rice still has the germ and the bran, which is brown in color. White rice consists only of the endosperm.
The bran contains some of the anti-nutrients we will get to shortly, so although on paper the extra nutrients in the bran look promising, we may not be able to digest them.
The difference in these two kinds of rice to spike your blood sugar isn’t that great. I also once thought that white rice spiked blood sugar far more than brown rice, and thus avoided it for a few years completely, but it’s not true. Using glycemicindex.com, I looked up the GI of both white rice and brown rice. Here are the results.
GI of brown rice
Results for jasmine rice:
GI of basmati rice
Jasmine rice, according a couple samples, has a glycemic index over 100. Basmati rice has a pretty low GI, maybe even lower than that of brown rice. I say maybe because I can’t say this data is enough for us. I have no idea how many participants were tested. But mainly, I can’t say much because GI responses to food depend on genetics. A study I posted about recently examined the glycemic response to sourdough bread and white bread in a crossover design. What they found was that some people’s blood sugar increased more after consumption of sourdough bread, and others, white bread. So all the numbers I showed you above represent averages, but not what is exactly going to take place in your body.
But intuitively, it makes sense to me that brown rice would have a lower GI than most kinds of white rice. When I eat white rice, I can feel that starchy goodness in my mouth melting, and I can eat more of it too. Maybe there are benefits to this, such as after a workout. The rapid spike in insulin will lower the adrenaline rush from the gym and cortisol, and help my body recover faster.
Next, the glycemic index of these foods is calculated after people consume only that one food, which isn’t realistic. Consider this picture below, which I obtained from a quora answer by Ben Wise, who lived in India for 10 years, had a son there, and learned both Tamil and Hindi (two languages in India).
Above, is idli, dosa, and on the left, a bagel-lookalike. These things are combinations of rice flour and lentils. They are consumed widely in south India. They are rice too, and they are consumed with tomato chutneys, which contain a variety of spices, which will certainly help to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Context matters: that’s the point.
Eating rice as part of a full meal may delay the absorption of glucose, preventing huge spikes. And lastly, the total amount you eat matters too. This is known as glycemic load. If you are not very physically active, but eat massive quantities of rice, this may not be benefiting your health. Whether it’s brown rice, or white rice, the total quantity will matter.
I used to google the “health benefits” of every food I ate. I consequently ate unpalatable foods, like unsprouted pumpkin seeds, because of their high nutrition value. As we’ll get too, nutrients must be made available before we can assimilate them. Let’s compare the micronutrients in brown rice vs. white rice. The screenshots below are taken from nutritiondata.self.com. I compared long grain brown rice to long grain white rice, and compared a 1-cup serving size of each. 1 cup of brown rice weights almost 33% more than a cup of white rice, but they contain almost the same number of carbohydrates, so I felt that it was a valid comparison. I think the most valid comparison would however be comparing the amount of brown rice vs. white rice that is consumed ad libitum. I am not sure what the quantity would be there, however, I suspect that I would eat less brown rice than white rice ad libitum due to lower palatability.
As far as minerals are concerned, 1 cup of brown rice contains more minerals than 1 cup of white rice, but considering that I would probably not be able to eat as much brown rice as white rice, and that 1 cup of brown rice weighs more than 1 cup of white rice (it’s a 4:3 ratio roughly), the nutrient difference is likely non-significant.
Unfortunately, we cannot compare the vitamins between white rice and brown rice using nutritiondata.self, because they do not report if the white rice was enriched white rice or not. As you can see, the folate levels are much higher in white rice. I suspect this is due to enrichment and it’s honestly quite aggravating that they don’t list this in their data. The public should have better quality information than this.
However, none of the other vitamins are oddly different in values, so perhaps it’s only the folate that was added. Looking at choline and betaine, these are much higher in brown rice. Many grains are a good source of these nutrients which are good for brain function.
Interestingly, brown rice has over 6 times more omega-6 fatty acids. Grains are a good source of these, and too much in our diet is pro-inflammatory. This is one argument which I believe the Paleo movement has in its favor. By switching to grains, we increased our consumption of pro-inflammatory omega-6s and are consuming fewer omega-3 fatty acids. Nevertheless the total quantity of fatty acids from rice is very small.
Overall, the difference in vitamin and mineral content between white and brown rice isn’t much, and the next question is if we can absorb these nutrients.
Anti-Nutrients in Brown Rice
Brown rice contains more phytic acid, which is a metal chelator. It is present in the bran, which is once again, removed in processing white rice. To understand what the implications of this is, let’s look at the chemical structure of phytic acid.
The sodium atoms on the outskirts of this molecule are drawn to the negatively charged oxygen species. Any cation (positively charged atom) can replace this. This includes zinc, copper, iron, selenium, and basically all those minerals we talked about above, which brown rice has more of. Notice the “P” in the photo above too: that’s phosphorus. The higher levels of phosphorus in brown rice are due to higher levels of phytate. Not sure if we can actually absob that phosphorus.
So although there are are many “health benefits” to the minerals in brown rice, they are null if they are chelated by phytic acid, which forms phytate (after chelation with the metal). I will not talk about phytate further for now, but I will update this post later once I have a bit more info, as phytate should be minimized in your food.
Back in the day, we needed to survive. We ate to survive. That’s why rice became a staple. It helped us fight death. Since we don’t worry about that anymore on average we have more options to enhance our health. White rice is more digestible than brown rice, more palatable (this is intuitive, but I have met some people who do like the taste of brown rice), and contains a lot of starch. Brown rice does too, but since for me personally it takes longer to chew it, it’s not as quickly available to me as is glucose.
People in Asia eat white rice for that reason. It enhanced their survival during famines and food shortages. In that context, your taste buds crave something that gives you calories fast.
In today’s day and age, this shouldn’t be a reason to eat lots of white rice. Brown rice, if prepared properly may be better for many of us. But white rice is just fine too as long as we eat a moderate quantity of it. Intuitively, we know that white rice is a source of carbohydrates, as it’s 90% carbs. It’s not “empty” calories. It’s survival calories, and carbohydrates are an important fuel source for the plant, and it’s amazing and beautiful that we can digest the starchy contents of rice and thrive on it.
Brown rice won’t give you more nutrition than white rice, and although it may be good for weight loss due to its lower palatability, and according to some sources, lower GI, you should try each out on your own body and decide what you like better. According to the data I provided, white rice is a significant source of iron, manganese, and selenium. When you consume non-heme iron (the type present in plant-foods) with heme iron as in meat, it’s absorbed better. So that’s a plus for all the curries I’ve ever eaten.
Now, personally, I’ve found that white rice gives me more energy, and actually keeps me fuller for longer. When I used to eat a lot of brown rice, I didn’t eat enough of it because I didn’t like the taste, and got hungry soon after. When I eat white rice, I feel fuller and eat more of it. This means more energy for my workouts and brain, as well as more minerals and vitamins.
Like I said in the beginning of this post, you are not a cow, or an herbivore, and are truly not meant to be chewing food all day. It’s important to eat fibrous foods, but brown rice isn’t a significant source of fiber. It adds up though that’s for sure, but my worry is the phytate. What do you think? My choice is white rice, and it’s time to make some for lunch. Yum!