When it comes to bread, pasta, potatoes, and rice, the mantra "brown is best" reigns supreme. The brown versions of all these foods tend to be less processed so they contain more nutrients, fiber, and have a lower GI (Glycemic Index).
But when it comes to rice, it's not as simple as all that.
Not only do Japanese people, whose diets are full of white rice, live long, healthy lives, a handful of news stories have also flagged up the fact that brown rice contains compounds that prevent our bodies from absorbing nutrients and it even contains arsenic, a naturally occurring mineral which can be poisonous in large doses.
So, what's the deal? Is brown rice *really* healthier? Here's what you need to know:
White rice does contain fewer nutrients
White rice is created by a refining process that removes the bran and germ portions of brown rice. Through this process, most of the fiber is lost (brown rice contains more than 4x the fiber of white rice) as well as many of other important vitamins and minerals (brown rice contains almost 4x more magnesium and 2x more manganese than white). Because of the difference in fiber content, white rice has a higher glycemic index than brown rice (it raises blood sugar levels more quickly). A diet rich in high GI foods can wreak havoc with blood sugar levels and energy, and increase your risk of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and other health conditions.
But brown rice contains "anti-nutrients"
The bran part of brown rice that is removed to produce white rice contains compounds called phytates. Phytates are sometimes labeled "anti-nutrients" because they can bind to minerals like zinc, magnesium and calcium, and prevent them from being absorbed by the body. Some people argue that a high diet rich in whole grains is too high in these phytates, which is part of the rationale for excluding them in eating plans like the Paleo diet.
However, other experts suggest that these phytates have protective properties against chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. For most healthy people, it could be that the potential negative effects of phytates on mineral absorption are actually offset by their health benefits.
Can you soak off the phytates?
You might have read that soaking grains and beans can reduce the phytate content, but unfortunately this doesn't work for brown rice as it contains very low levels of phytase, the enzyme that breaks down phytates.
So, what's the verdict?
The real lesson here is that it's never as simple as labeling foods "good" or "bad." Neither white nor brown rice are intrinsically "bad," and both can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. I *would* recommend opting for a wholegrain option as a general rule, however, just be aware of the fact that whole grains do contain phytates, and ensure your diet is rich in plenty of other food sources of vitamins and minerals, particularly a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. If you're having white rice, always combine with a good source of protein and some fat (salmon and avocado sushi, perhaps!), the combination of which will help slow the rate at which it raises blood sugar levels.