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Healthy Rice Choices

It is easy to default into categorizing rice into two types- white and brown. Really, there are over 40,000 types of rice, several of which can produce both white and brown styles. This is because the difference between white rice and brown rice are different only in processing, not in varietal. Almost all these types of rice can be separated into three primary categories of rice- long grain, medium grain, and short grain. Long grain rice is about four times as long as it is wide. It is fluffy when cooked yet stays separated. Medium grain rice is roughly two times as long as it is wide. It is a stickier rice, with grains clinging to one another after they have been cooked. Short grain rice is short, fat, and tends to stick together in clumps and lumps after it has been cooked.

Cultivated rice, that is, rice that isn’t wild rice, all originated in China about 10,000 years ago, from a single crop that developed into two separate species. These are called Asian Rice and African Rice, and each one evolved into hundreds of different cultivars that today we use the umbrella term “rice” to describe.

Sticky rice is an Asian style rice that can be made from any kind of short grain white rice, but it is cooked in a way that it loses its shape and becomes very sticky or glutinous. Don’t let the word “glutinous” mislead you though; rice is naturally gluten free, making it a great option for sufferers of celiac disease or those who have other gluten intolerances. Glutinous rice becomes sticky when it is cooked because of its high levels of amylopectin.

Black rice is black because of anthocynin, an antioxidant that is common in dark colored plants like eggplants, raspberries, black soybeans, and blueberries. Anthocynins appear as different colors depending on the pH of the food. Black rice is sometimes called “forbidden rice” or “the Emperor’s rice,” as historically only the richest people could afford the luxury of this darkly colored rice.

Pink Rice is mostly grown in Madagascar and has a sweet scent reminiscent of pumpkin pie spice. It has a sweet flavor that is subtler than anything, but it makes the perfect rice for a rice pudding. It’s harder to come by because it is grown in only a small part of the world, but if you can get your hands on some it is worth the expense.

Red Rice is high in magnesium and potassium and tastes nutty and earthy. Once cooked, it loses a little bit of that deep red color and looks more pink than red.

Wild rice? That’s a kind of aquatic grass, not really rice, even though it looks like it. Indigenous to Native America, wild rice was originally cultivated and consumed by native peoples. It grows predominantly in the Great Lakes region in the wild. Today, it is mostly grown in man-made rice paddies, though you may be able to find some organic wild rice at specialty food stores. It is often sold in a blend with a long grain rice for the aesthetic appeal.


What Kind of Rice is the Healthiest?

Long grain rice is healthier than short grain rice, since short grain rice ranks higher on the glycemic index than long grain rice does. The glycemic index, or GI, is a system that measures the effect food has on your blood sugar ranging from a 0 to 100. Foods with a low GI number, 55 or less, are more slowly digested and more slowly absorbed into the body, meaning the carbohydrates are slow to give energy and better for a more sustainable energy. This is better for your body than foods that have a high GI number, 56 or higher. Foods with a high GI number will be absorbed more quickly and cause a sharp spike of blood sugar in the body. Rice varieties range from low to high on the Glycemic Index depending on the type, degree of processing, and how the rice is cooked. Other foods eaten in combination with rice also influence its glycemic index score. Keep in mind when looking at the foods you consume that the amount of a carbohydrate eaten is at least as important, if not more important, than the glycemic index score itself.

The most common processed types of rice are:

  • Brown medium grain rice which has a GI ranking of 50
  • Basmati long grain rice which has a GI ranking of 57
  • Arborio medium grain rice (sometimes called risotto rice) which has a GI ranking of 69
  • White short grain rice which has a GI of 72
  • Sticky or sweet rice is a short grain white rice that has a GI ranking of 87
  • Jasmine rice (also called fragrant rice) has the highest GI ranking of 89

Keep in mind however that how the rice cooked does matter to this number. The GI rating will vary depending on how the rice is cooked. For example, medium grain brown rice when steamed has a GI of 50, when microwaved has a GI of 59, and when boiled has a GI of 72. This will vary depending on the type of rice you are cooking. Since there are so many varieties and everyone has different diet restrictions, it is best to research what kind of rice has the GI level you need, as well as what cooking method will fit in with your specific needs.

Brown rice has been heralded as the healthier kind of rice, but some people believe that brown rice is a worse choice because it tends to have more arsenic in it than white rice. Brown rice does have more nutrients, yes, but white rice typically has less arsenic. Brown rice is full of vitamins and minerals that are mostly lost when brown rice is converted to white rice. However, many brands of white rice have been enriched with some of the vitamins and minerals it lost in the conversion process.

Basmati rice, sometimes called popcorn rice because of the way it smells, is a long grain rice option that tends to have the most health benefits. Of all the rice varieties, basmati rice tends to have the most benefits and the least amount of harmful arsenic.


Is There Arsenic in Rice?

The short answer; yes. Arsenic is a natural element found in the earth’s crust, but there are two different forms. Organic and inorganic arsenic are different compounds, but both should be limited in your diet. Inorganic arsenic is the true problem however, as it has been linked to skin, liver, and bladder cancer. Organic arsenic is naturally present in the earth’s crust and is one of the more abundant elements on earth. While still not good for you, it is the lesser of two evils.

Some kinds of rice have more arsenic than others. It just depends on where the rice was grown. Basmati rice, in general, has the least amount of arsenic, but Indian Basmati rice is the best contender if you are concerned about the level of arsenic in your rice. Brown rice tends to have more arsenic than white rice since the arsenic is stored in the outer hull, or what makes brown rice brown. Rice varieties grown in Texas are proven to have the highest level of arsenic, as soils there have been greatly affected by arsenic laden pesticides.


How Does Arsenic Get in Rice?

Arsenic shows up in rice, and all throughout the food chain from three sources. The earth’s crust as discussed before, pollution from factories that may be producing an abundance of arsenic and releasing it into the atmosphere, and some arsenic based pesticides that used to be some of the most popular in the United States until more recently. Unfortunately, these pesticides have had lasting effects on the environment, leeching into the soil and water supplies. Since rice is grown in water and requires much more water than a crop like wheat, it is especially susceptible to absorbing the harmful chemical.


How Do I Cook Rice to Remove Arsenic?

There are some steps you can take to remove some of the arsenic from your rice. If you soak the rice overnight, you allow the rice to open and release some of the chemical inside. Similarly, if you rinse the rice under very hot water before cooking it you will release some of the toxin. Hot water encourages the rice to open up and shed some of its arsenic, but this may also release some of the nutrients in the rice.

Cooking the rice in more water than it needs will also help you get out some of the arsenic. The idea is to have a pocket of leftover water that you can drain off once the rice has finished cooking, so the arsenic is rinsed away. When cooked in water that is just enough to cover the rice and then be cooked away, the arsenic will bind to the rice.


So What Is the Healthiest Rice Choice?

Basmati rice is the overall best choice. Brown or white, it has the least amount of arsenic and the most vitamins and minerals, plus it’s not as calorically dense as most other types of long grain rice. Really, adding more rice to your diet, regardless of the type, is a healthy move. Rice is full of plenty of nutrients that your body needs to function properly. Pair with black beans, some delicious spices, and you have yourself a healthy, filling meal that will taste incredible and nourish your cells.

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