Those of you who follow my blog and have read my book know my stance on rice already. I'm not anti-rice and I personally consume rice conscientiously and strategically with great results. However, back when I had insulin resistance with significant metabolic syndrome, untethered rice intake would have made my health spiral further downward. I no longer have these issues, so thoughtful rice intake has had no adverse consequences on my health and I enjoy rice more than ever. You can read my past post, The Great Rice Controversy, for more information.
To clear my name as an anti-rice extremist, I have called upon our dietician, Prerna Uppal, to provide a detailed analysis of the science and practical applications of different forms of rice.
Rice Advice by Prerna Uppal
Kishan, one of our wonderful hosts on the weekly KLOK radio show on Desi 1170 AM where we focus on health, requested we do a segment on Rice. The timing was impeccable , as September happens to be National Rice Month! Read on as we end the month on a “rice note.”
Rice is the most widely consumed grain especially in Asia, and as we hone in on the Indian sub-continent, we see that it is a staple in the South and coastal regions of India. Kerala and Goa are both known for their rice dishes popularly served up with coconut fish curry. If you're worried about coconut, read this post.
Although you may be limiting rice in your diet as you track your carbohydrates to improve glucose control in case of diabetes or insulin resistance (IR), keep in mind that rice is a gluten-free carb and therefore beneficial for people who are battling gut inflammation issues. As growing numbers of gluten-free eaters depend on rice for their staple, there are a couple key points to keep in mind.
- The carb-rice connection
- Arsenic contamination of rice
Carbs and Rice
Carbohydrates can have a huge impact on our blood sugars. When we consume carbohydrates, they break down into glucose which causes our blood sugar levels to rise. The amount, timing and type of carbohydrate affect our blood sugars. Rice is high in carbohydrates and therefore, has a significant impact on our blood sugar levels. This Harvard study shows that individuals of Asian descent, who consume significantly more white rice than Westerners, had a higher risk of developing diabetes based on rice intake.
Fortunately this post will teach you some innovative ways to select and consume rice in a way that mitigates some of the glucose-elevating effects of rice. For example, people with diabetes or IR need to make sure their rice intake matches their physical activity levels. If they are very active and exercise regularly, they need carbs for energy and can handle rice more efficiently than someone who is sedentary, yet continues to consume excessive portions of rice like so many of the individuals we see in our clinic.
The different types of rice actually have varying glycemic index or GI (GI is a measure of a food's ability to raise blood sugar after consumption), protein content, fiber and micronutrient composition. We'll explore these further as we talk about various forms of rice.
What are some common types of rice?
Before we start talking rice types, let me briefly explain their evolution.
- After harvesting the rice kernel, the hull (aka husk) is removed. What you have now is brown rice as the bran is still intact along with the germ and the endosperm.
- If this brown rice is processed (milled and polished) further to remove the bran and the germ, what we get is white rice.
- If after harvesting, the complete rice kernel, before removing the hull is soaked, steamed and dried and then the hull is removed, you get parboiled rice.
1. White Rice-
It is the most widely consumed staple food in the world. Just like all whole grains, rice has a germ, endosperm and bran. White rice is milled so that the bran and germ are removed and due to this process, the nutritional quality of white rice is reduced- it is almost devoid of fiber, and micronutrients like B-vitamins and iron. Below is a nice image courtesy of Trader Joe's. Being low in fiber, white rice tends to cause a sharper rise (spike) in our blood sugars. By law in the US, white rice has to be enriched, so the lost micronutrients are added back (fortified).
There are several varieties of white rice such as long grain (less starchy), medium, short grain (very starchy-also called “sticky” rice), parboiled (partially cooked, then dehydrated) and aromatic rice such as basmati and jasmine (long grain varieties).
Basmati rice in moderation is one of the healthiest types of rice as it has the lowest levels of inorganic arsenic and a relatively lower GI. Jasmine rice in comparison has a high GI. When choosing rice, opt for one with a lower GI to control your blood sugars (as well as your appetite!)
Nutritional profile:1 cup of cooked white rice: 45 g carbs, 0.6 g fiber (44.4 g *NC), 4 g protein
*NC refers to net carbs=Total carbohydrate minus fiber
2. Brown Rice–
It is a whole grain rice with the bran and germ intact. It is therefore, higher in fiber than white rice. Due to the fat in the germ, brown rice does tend to get rancid faster than white rice.
Although the macronutrient composition (carbs, proteins and fats) is very comparable for white and brown rice, it is the micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) distribution that sets them apart. Brown rice is more nutritious than white rice in this regard, providing more phosphorus, magnesium, selenium and B-vitamins. In addition, since the consistency is thicker, individuals typically consume lesser portions than white rice which automatically lowers the glycemic impact. Eating excessive amounts of brown rice, especially if you are sedentary and/or insulin resistant, would have an adverse effect on blood glucose.
There are several varieties as well, such as long grain, medium, short grain and brown basmati
Nutritional profile: 1 cup of cooked brown rice: 45 g carbs, 3.5 g fiber (41.5 g NC), protein 5 g
3. Parboiled Rice-
As the name suggests, this rice has been partially boiled (steamed actually). It is nutritionally superior to the other varieties of rice as well as easily digestible. During the steaming process a couple things happen to enhance its nutritional quality. The nutrients (such as b-complex vitamins) from the hull (and bran) move into the grain and so when the hull is removed, to get brown parboiled rice, it does not alter the nutrient composition of the rice kernel. As a result, parboiled rice has greater micronutrient and fiber content.
The brown parboiled rice is usually milled and polished and again, this does not adversely affect the nutritional quality of the rice as the nutrients are deep in the grain. The resultant white parboiled rice continues to be a source of micronutrients (such as magnesium, iron, zinc), except now, it is devoid of fiber.
Additionally, the steaming process changes the starch in the grain and makes it more digestible and also easier to cook. When choosing parboiled rice, opt for the brown variety (if you can source it!). It has a lower GI.
Nutritional profile: 1 cup cooked white parboiled rice: 41 g carbs, ~1.5 g fiber (39.5 g NC), 4-5 g protein
4. Wild Rice –
Did you know, wild rice is actually the seed of a North American grass and not rice? Wild rice was the staple of Native Americans.
It is nutty and chewy in flavor and has twice the protein of white/brown rice. It is high in fiber so takes longer to cook. Try soaking it overnight to reduce cooking time. It is more nutritious than white rice as it has a lower GI, is not polished and a good source of micronutrients such as phosphorus, magnesium and zinc and B-vitamin.
Nutritional profile: cup of cooked wild rice: 35 g carbs, 3 g fiber (31 g NC), 7 g protein
5. Sprouted Brown Rice–
This variety is usually found in health food stores. It is made by germinating brown rice-a process that significantly boosts the nutritional quality of the grain.
Although the carbs are the same as in regular brown rice, the micronutrient content of sprouted brown rice is higher.
One study also found higher levels of gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA), an amino acid that supports heart health. Sprouted rice has 4 times the amount of GABA of brown rice and 10 times the amount of white rice. Sprouted rice is also much easier to digest and cooks in less time.
Nutritional profile: 1 cup of cooked sprouted brown rice: 41 g carbs, 2 g fiber (39 g NC), 4 g protein
Arsenic and rice
In September of 2012, consumer reports released a report on their analysis on arsenic levels in several varieties of rice, including white, brown, conventionally grown, domestic and imported. They also tested rice-based products such as rice cereals, beverages, pasta, flour and crackers.
Virtually all of the products were found to have arsenic-both inorganic (classified as a class A, carcinogen) and organic (less harmful but still a concern), many of them at “worrisome” levels.
So why is rice such an arsenic arsenal? It turns out that since rice paddies grow in standing water and because arsenic levels in the water are high, it is more available to the grain. Also, the soil where rice is now grown in the US, has arsenic residues from decades of arsenic-based pesticides that were used in vineyards, orchards and for cultivating cotton crops.
We, as healthcare professionals have long been proponents of brown rice over white rice due to its higher fiber content. Unfortunately brown rice, due to the bran, seems to have more arsenic than white rice. The good news though for us in California- rice grown here as well as imported basmati rice may have lower arsenic levels than other varieties.
The EPA has set the limit for arsenic in water to 10 ppb, however, there are no federal limits for arsenic levels in food, including rice. There is no need to avoid rice-what I would recommend is that it not dominate your diet as is common in Asian households and instead include it in moderation along with a variety of other nutrient dense foods and high quality grains.
A good recourse always, is to eat a varied diet since this approach limits your exposure to any toxic substances that may be present in a particular food. Experiment with other grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and millets. They are all gluten-free and therefore easier on the gut. Keep in mind however, that their carb content is comparable to rice.
Does rinsing rice make a difference?
Sometimes rice is coated with rice powder, talc or powdered glucose to prevent clumping. It seems to be an Asian tradition to wash rice before cooking and in India, traditionally, basmati rice is repeatedly rinsed before cooking.
When rinsing, you will see the water turn cloudy due to the powdered coating. This rinse ritual is usually continued until the water is clear. It is a good idea to rinse not only to remove the coating, but also from the arsenic standpoint.
The FDA recommends thoroughly rinsing the rice until the water is clear as it reduces the arsenic content by almost 25-30%.
You might ask, but what about the nutrients? Do we lose them in the rinsing process? Yes, enriched rice will lose some amount of the fortified b-complex vitamins when rinsed, as they are water soluble.
What about rice modifications and substitutions?
From a carb standpoint, a healthy way to substitute out for rice is by including vegetables. Vegetables are lower in carbs and rich in micronutrients and antioxidants and are great rice replacers especially for people with diabetes and IR. Dr. Ron’s book (South Asian Health Solution) discusses this along with a collection of recipes, e.g. cauliflower rice. The glycemic impact of rice can actually be manipulated by the way we prepare it and what we eat with it. See below for some tips:
- Increasing your activity levels and making sure to “exercise for rice.” Be sure your level of exercise matches your intake. A 10 minute stroll doesn’t earn you a full bowl of rice! You want to do at least 30 minutes of an exercise that has you breathing heavier and that causes a burn in your muscles like one of our favorites discussed in this post.
- Adding good quality protein such as whole eggs, paneer made from fresh organic milk, organic non-GMO soy or fermented soy like tempeh, and adding nuts to make your own fried rice or biryani with a side of greek yogurt raita are some ideas. Be sure to mix in plenty of vegetables. In fact, this study shows that eating your vegetables and protein before your carbohydrates lowers the effects on glucose and insulin!
- Including good quality fats such as an avocado salad on the side or adding a spoon of fresh ghee, coconut oil or organic butter can help your body absorb more of the fat-soluble vitamins from the vegetables you eat.
- Choosing fermented rice products, such as idli/dosa might be a healthier choice than the non-fermented kind, especially for individuals trying to improve gut health
- Adding herbs and spices to your rice dish may also lower inflammation and glycemic response. Ginger, garlic, turmeric, cilantro, chopped onions, etc. are some great options.
- For Indian cooking, my recommendation is to go with brown basmati.
- Finally, more recent science shows that cooling rice after cooking it may actually reduce rice's glycemic and caloric impact since the cooling process converts rice to a “resistant starch.” Resistant starch bypasses digestion, preventing break down into glucose, and goes straight to your gut to feed healthy bacteria. Not all of the rice becomes resistant, but cooling does increase the percent conversion to resistant starch. Read about this study regarding resistant rice starch.
Bottom line: Choose mostly high fiber, unprocessed rice, eat it in moderation, balance the carb content with protein, fat, and abundant vegetables, and be sure to exercise regularly. Remember, exercise for rice! Rice can be a part of a healthy diet as long as we balance activity with sensible food choices. If you have insulin resistance/blood glucose issues, we encourage you to monitor your home blood sugar after trying different types of rice and the suggested rice modifications. This can be a very enlightening experience that better informs your choices about rice type and portion size. Now inspired by some of the science we discussed, here is a recipe from my kitchen:
(by Prerna Uppal)
Cooked rice, 2 cups cooked
Shredded coconut, ½ cup
Cashews, ¼ cup
Mustard seeds, 1 tsp
Cumin seeds, 1 tsp
Asafoetida, ¼ tsp
Green chili, 1 chopped
Curry leaves, 5-6
Virgin coconut oil, 1 Tbsp
Salt to taste
- Heat the oil in a pan and saute the cashews for 2 minutes. Remove and keep aside.
- To the same oil, add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, green chili, asafoetida and curry leaves. Saute for a few seconds.
- Add the cooked rice, shredded coconut and salt.
- Stir for a couple minutes and garnish with the cashews.