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Which Type of Rice Is Healthiest?

Short-grain vs. long-grain vs. basmati vs. brown rice. What are the nutritional differences between all the different types of rice? Nutrition Diva explains.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #629
The Quick And Dirty
  • Brown rice is higher in fiber and minerals than white rice but the differences are relatively small. 
  • Long-grain rice (including basmati) has a lower glycemic load than short grain rice.
  • Rice that is cooked and cooled (including converted rice) contains more resistant starch, which acts as fiber.
  • Red and black rice are rich in antioxidants.
  • Portion size matters, no matter what type of rice you choose.

There are at least a dozen different types of rice to choose from at the grocery store: long-grain, short-grain, white, brown, basmati, 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.
  • Medium-grain, as you might expect, is somewhere in between.
  • 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.

All of these types of rice are availabe as either white or brown rice.  In each case, brown is the whole grain version, whereas white rice has been milled to remove the germ and bran.  Brown rice is a lot chewier and heartier than white rice and takes about twice as long to cook.

But we're not done yet!

You'll also find varieties of whole grain rice that aren't white or brown but rather red, purple, or black. These are special varieties of rice that are high in pigments called anthocyanins.  

And finally, you can also buy instant or converted rice. Both of these 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?

Because brown rice retains both the germ and the bran parts of the grain, it is higher in magnesium and other minerals. It also has more fiber. For example, a half cup of white long-grain rice contains less than one gram of fiber, whereas a half cup of brown rice contains 1.5 grams. As a point of reference, you’re shooting for between 25 and 30 grams of fiber each day. 

Although all rice is quite low in fat, brown rice has slightly more due to the fat content of the germ.  All types of rice provide about the same amount of protein, or 2-3 grams per serving.

Black and red rice, however, both offer an additional nutritional bonus. Anthocyanins, which are the pigments that create the deep color of these types of rice, are potent antioxidants.

The calorie content for different types of rice ranges from 90 calories (for basmati) to 135 (for short grain white rice).  Most of these calories are coming from carbohydrates or starch.

(Here's a chart comparing the nutritional profile of most common types of rice.)

How does rice affect blood sugar?

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.

But keep in mind that glycemic response to foods varies enormously from person to person.  And glycemic index tables are compiled from tests on relatively small numbers of individuals. So, these may be of somewhat limited value. 

Another factor that comes into play with the glycemic load is resistant starch. When rice is cooked and then cooled, some of the starches are converted into a form of starch that resists digestion and functions instead as a sort of fiber.  Resistant starch has the effect of reducing the glycemic load.  For this reason, parboiled or converted rice also has a lower glycemic load than freshly cooked rice. 

But before you start obsessing over whether white basmati might outrank brown short-grain, or whether cooled, short-grain rice has a higher or lower glycemic impact than freshly-cooked, long-grain rice, we 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. 

In fact, the amount of rice you eat will have a much bigger impact on your blood sugar than the type. 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-half cup, or about the size of an ice cream scoop. 

What type of rice should you eat?

Although brown rice is somewhat 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.

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.