What Type of Rice is Healthiest?
There are at least a dozen different types of rice to choose from at the grocery store: long-grain, short-grain, opens in a new windowwhite, opens in a new windowbrown, opens in a new windowbasmati, instant, converted, whew! Which one is best?
Cooking with Rice
There are fairly big differences between the various kinds of rice in terms of cooking times and the texture of the cooked rice. So, if you are cooking from a recipe, it’s important to pay attention to what kind of rice the recipe calls for. Substituting a different kind of rice can really change how a recipe comes out—not always in a good way.
The Different Types of Rice
The different types of rice include the following:
Short-grain rice is very starchy and cooks up soft and sticky. It’s used in things like sushi, paella, and risotto.
Long-grain rice contains less starch so the cooked grains are drier and more separate. It’s often used in pilafs or dishes with a lot of sauce.
Jasmine and basmati are long-grain varieties that have been cultivated to bring out distinctive flavor profiles. They often turn up in Indian and Asian food.
Brown rice—which is also available in long and short grains—is a lot chewier and heartier than white rice and takes about twice as long to cook.
You can also buy instant or converted rice. Both have been partially cooked and then dehydrated. If you’re using a pre-processed rice, it’s important to follow the preparation instructions on the package.
Here’s an article that talks more about the culinary properties and uses of different kinds of rice. But what about the nutritional aspects?
What are the Nutritional Differences in Rice?
Brown rice is a whole grain, meaning that both the germ and the bran parts of the grain have been preserved. In white rice, these have been polished away. As a result, brown rice is higher in magnesium and other minerals. It also has more fiber. For example, a cup of white long-grain rice contains just one gram of fiber, whereas a cup of brown rice contains four. As a point of reference, you’re shooting for between 25 and 30 grams of fiber each day.
One of the things fiber does for you is slow down the speed at which carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar. Said another way, fiber lowers the “glycemic load” of a food. When you’re talking about glycemic load, lower is better.
How Does White Rice Affect Blood Sugar?
Although some types of rice have a lower glycemic load than others, no type of rice can really be considered a low glycemic food.
As a general rule, brown rice has a lower glycemic load than white rice. But there are other factors that come into play as well. Long-grain rice has a lower glycemic load than short-grain rice. Of all the long-grain rice, basmati seems to have the lowest glycemic load of all. So, in terms of glycemic load, the best choice would appear to be brown basmati rice, with short-grain white rice at the other end of the spectrum.
What’s the Serving Size of Rice?
But before you start stressing out over whether white basmati might outrank brown short-grain, I think you need to put these differences in perspective. Although some types of rice have a lower glycemic load than others, no type of rice can really be considered a low glycemic food. That’s why it’s important to exercise some portion control—no matter what kind of rice you’re eating. A serving of cooked rice is one cup, or about the size of your fist.
For guidelines on how many servings of different kinds of food you should eat, see my article on keeping your diet on track.
A Little Bit of White Rice Won’t Hurt You
As I mentioned above, although brown rice is more nutritious than white rice and has a lower glycemic load, it’s also heavier and chewier and that may not always be what you want. Here’s how I look at it: The more rice you eat, the more benefit you’ll get from eating brown rice, at least most of the time. But if you only eat rice occasionally or in small quantities, the nutritional differences between white and brown rice just aren’t big enough to worry about.
Is Wild Rice Healthy?
If you’re looking for a more nutritious kind of rice, you might want to consider adding wild rice to the mix once in a while. I didn’t mention it before because, although it’s a close botanical relative of rice (both are types of grasses), wild rice is really a different thing altogether. It can be a bit of an acquired taste. (Then again, that’s how a lot of people feel about brown rice!) The grains have a chewy outer sheath with a tender inner grain that has a slightly vegetal taste. To me, it’s sort of half-way between a starch and a vegetable.
The Nutrients in Wild Rice
Compared to brown rice, wild rice is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates—that means it has a significantly lower glycemic load. It’s also higher in vitamin A and folic acid but not quite as high in minerals. And even though it’s quite low in total fat, wild rice is also a decent source of omega-3s, and has a great omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, the importance of which I discussed in this recent article.
For those who like to mix things up a bit, wild rice is an interesting and nutritious alternative to regular rice. But instead of just substituting it for regular rice, I suggest you try it in a recipe that’s been specifically developed to make the most of its unique qualities. Here’s a link to some recipes featuring wild rice to get you started.
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Wild rice recipes (Epicurious.com)
Rice image from Shutterstock