We’ve all been there, right? Standing in the aisle of the grocery store, looking at all of the packages of rice. How do you know which varieties of rice are healthiest, and which are the worst for you? We can all agree we know plain white rice is the junk food equivalent of the rice family, providing little to no nutrients. But what about the rest?
The wonderful thing about rice (other than its cost) is its diversity. You can eat it as a base for so many meals, and from risotto to sushi, it seems most countries have developed their rice-based mainstays.
Pre-packaged rice packs that are microwavable are also available, making them a convenient, easy treat for lunches away from home or a fast snack. So, let’s take a closer look at different rice varieties from best to worst, nutritionally, and see where some of them clock in on the health scale.
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Brown rice has long been noted for its health benefits, vitamins, and nutrients, as well as its low glycemic index. For example, the selenium, manganese, and magnesium found in brown rice are attributed to the prevention of colon cancer, asthma, and diabetes, among other debilitating conditions.
Brown rice is high in vitamin E, which can reduce aging effects and damage to lipid membranes of cells, an important part of cellular health. When the membrane isn’t intact or is damaged, the cells malfunction and eventually die.
Since brown rice contains the bran and germ layers (which are removed during processing of white rice), it’s a fantastic source of cholesterol-lowering vitamins like vitamin E.
This is also where the fiber in brown rice comes from. Like most foods, when left whole, your body gets to harness more of those naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals that are lost during processing.
This rice is also high in protein and low in fast-release sugars that spike blood glucose levels. This means when you eat brown rice (as opposed to white rice), you get a slow release of the carbohydrates and nutrients, rather than a quick release of sugars that make your blood glucose levels fluctuate (an early indicator of type 2 diabetes, and not healthy for non-diabetics either).
In fact, diabetes is thought to be caused in part by oxidative stress from high-sugar diets. As the sugar quickly spreads into your blood, the high sugar level causes damage to cells and DNA because metabolizing and processing all of that sugar produces a by-product of free oxygen molecules that damage cellular components and genetic material.
So, not only is less sugar and slower absorption preventative against diabetes development, but this is also healthier for your body as a whole. Brown rice also has several flavonoids, including apigenin, quercetin, and luteolin, which also act as antioxidants, preventing this oxidative damage.
Rice milk is also made from brown rice; you can read about the health benefits of rice milk in our article “What is the Healthiest Milk?“
Black rice (also called “forbidden rice”)
Black rice comes in second on our list in terms of nutrients. Originally cultivated in Asia, this rice used to be reserved for royalty, eventually coining the term “forbidden rice.”
Black rice has even more fiber than brown rice, and is packed with nutrients including anthocyanins, which are thought to have anti-cancer effects. Anthocyanins are the most coveted nutrient in black rice. In addition to preventing cancer development, they can serve as anti-inflammatories, anti-proliferatives, and antioxidants.
There have also been several studies on the effect of consumed anthocyanins on bacteria, as a natural-source antibiotic, but these studies are still ongoing and have produced mixed results.
Black rice is also high in phenolic antioxidants, which have many of the same health benefits and features as anthocyanins. Together, these substances packed into the fiber-filled black rice kernels make this a superfood that is widely underrated. That’s why black rice is the second healthiest rice on our list.
Rather like black rice, red rice is most common in Asia. The two most popular varieties of red rice are Himalayan red rice and Thai red cargo rice. Red rice in Asia is often fermented, producing “red yeast rice”.
This is used as a garnish for tofu, meat, wine, and pastries, as well as many other popular dishes. Health benefits associated with red yeast rice include anti-inflammatory, cholesterol lowering, cardioprotective, anticancer, and antidiabetic properties. It has long been considered a traditional Chinese medicine.
A 2015 study heralded red yeast rice as a cure for vascular and metabolic disease. In addition it has been extensively used as a natural remedy in China. Several studies done in animals also support the cardioprotective effects of red yeast rice and its cholesterol lowering, hypotensive, and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Wild rice (while technically a seed, it is still placed in the rice family)
Wild rice is actually a seed, not a grain, but we still consider it a type of rice. It’s higher in protein and lower in fat than rice, and contains a number of nutrients including B vitamins, vitamin E, calcium, iron, phosphorous, potassium, and zinc.
It has an extremely low glycemic index, because of the high protein nature of the seed, and is also high in fiber. In North America, wild rice is considered part of the “whole grain” food group, and is marketed as a health-promoting food.
The high antioxidant content of this seed also makes it a viable source of those cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging benefits previously discussed for other rice.
Benefits of consuming wild rice include lower cholesterol (due to its high fiber content), lower type two diabetes risk, and a reduction of other chronic conditions. The flavonoid content of wild rice also lend antioxidative and anti-inflammatory effects. Quantifications of the antioxidant content of wild rice have revealed the high variety and usefulness of these potent disease-fighting compounds in this rice.
Basmati rice originally comes from the Himalayan region, and is particularly popular because of its easy digestibility, palatability, and variety. Cooking into a fluffy rice blend, basmati rice is recommended for those with digestive conditions including irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
Unfortunately, this light, fluffy quality comes from selective breeding and processing of the kernels prior to consumption, and as a result, this rice is lower in healthy nutrients and vitamins than other varieties of rice. That said, there are many antioxidants and helpful anthocyanins in basmati rice that are still a good addition to your diet.
While an improvement over white rice, jasmine rice contains fewer beneficial nutrients than other rice varieties, and should be eaten sparingly. The best varieties of jasmine rice are whole grain red, purple, and black rice, as these contain phytonutrients and antioxidants only found in trace amounts or not found at all in white, processed jasmine rice.
A 2015 study showed that jasmine rice has a relatively high glycemic index, which can make it a less healthy option than some of the rice varieties mentioned above. For these reasons, jasmine rice lands fairly far down on our list of healthy rice options.
Risotto is a classic rice-based dish enjoyed around the world, made from Arborio rice. This rice can be slowly cooked in broth, melting the outer shell, developing a creamy, yet dairy-free side-dish. However, the nutrition information on the package describes that the rice unfortunately is 90% carbohydrates with very little fiber and other nutrients.
While delicious and certainly not the worst of choices, this rice falls far down our list, as it spikes blood glucose, is high in carbohydrates, and low in fiber and other nutrients. Enjoy risotto now and then, but it certainly shouldn’t replace other varieties of rice in your diet.
We have finally made it to the end of our list and are facing the worst rice for you, nutritionally speaking. While white rice is a mainstay in many cultures and forms a base for dishes enjoyed around the world, it has the highest carbohydrate and lowest nutritional value of all varieties of rice discussed today.
Yes, the white rice versus brown rice argument has been analyzed from all angles, and the consensus is that brown rice contains much more fiber (because it contains the bran and germ layers), and many micronutrients that are lost during processing and selective breeding of white rice.
The phenolic acids, flavonoids, and other nutrients of brown rice (not found in white rice, or found in trace amounts only) carry a variety of health benefits discussed under the first section of this article. White rice, in comparison, is mostly carbohydrate with little to no nutritional value. Replacing white rice with brown or other varieties discussed that are high in nutrients can increase your protein, amino acid, and nutritional value, while spiking your blood glucose less severely, protecting you against diabetes.
There are no “bad” kinds of rice. All serve a purpose, and white rice remains on the table because it is the least expensive variety of rice at the supermarket.
Others do have a higher nutritional value, and including these whenever possible will give your body the assortment of nutrients that it needs and improve your health. So the next time you reach for a packet of white rice, try something with color! It just might surprise you.
If you liked this article, take a look at our article “The World’s Healthiest Beans!“