Rice: Brown rice, white rice, or what?

We’re hearing that brown rice is a good nutritional choice for healthy living.  But is white rice, found almost everywhere, such a bad alternative? After all, many Asian cultures have used white rice for ages and seem to be in good health.

Rice Diversity. Part of the image collection o...

The grocery aisles are full of rice choices:  enriched rice, jasmine rice, brown jasmine rice, brown rice, and so on.

More humans eat rice than possibly any other food on the planet. Rice is a grain like wheat or barley and there are over 40,000 varieties.  I discovered during a recent gluten sensitivity that rice is one of the least allergenic and most easily digested foods. People who are allergic to wheat and other grains can use rice flour to make baked goods such as breads and cookies.  Americans eat about 25 lbs. of rice per year as opposed to the residents of Myanmar who eat about 500 lbs. of rice per year.  So why worry about whether it’s white rice or brown rice?

Rice grains

All types of rice begin unprocessed.  Brown rice is a whole grain whose nutritious, nutty-tasting outer layer of germ and bran are left intact, is chewier, has a shorter shelf life because of the oil in the germ, and requires longer cooking times with, usually, more liquid.  White rice has had the bran and germ removed, is polished, is quick cooking, is soft in texture, and has a much longer shelf life.

One cup of brown rice has 4 grams of fiber whereas one cup of white rice has only 1 gram of fiber.  As far as the glycemic index, brown rice raises blood sugar the least while white rice raises it the most, but long grain rice also raises blood sugar less than short grain rice, so a long grain brown basmati rice will have a lower glycemic value.  Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!

Much is made of Asia’s use of white rice vs. their healthier and longer lives.  Asian countries have traditionally remained lean on a white rice diet due to lots of low-level aerobic activity which promotes insulin sensitivity, due to mainly nutrient-dense foods that are eaten with that rice, and as stated earlier, due to rice being one of the least allergenic and most easily digested foods.

But this may be coming to an end.  Both China and India are facing diabetes epidemics along with several other Asian countries.  Sedentary living, processed junk food, and bad fats, a cornerstone of the American way of life, is beginning to descend upon Asia. Cooking oils have displaced traditional animal fats, sugar intake is rising, and people walk less. Oh yeah, that American way of life.  I think we’re beginning to see the differences in our lifestyles and the benefits of brown rice.

Brown and white rice.

So how did we get this trend of countries from America to Asia to Europe preferring white rice?  Brown rice had been traditionally served for centuries as a staple of many culture’s diets. Along with industrialization in America, Europe, and Asia in the 19th century came milling.  Milling cost money and white rice was therefore more expensive than brown.  It became prestigious to be able to buy white rice.  White rice also stores better than brown rice, therefore it was a better product to ship and store as people started moving away from their local market where they shopped daily to the large grocery stores we see today.  Today, since storage has become more expensive than milling, common white rice is often cheaper than brown rice, partly due to brown rice’s relatively low supply and difficulty of storage and transport.

The 1849 gold rush in America brought many immigrants to California, including an estimated 40,000 Chinese, whose staple food was rice.   Rice production rose and it was found to grow well in California’s Sacramento Valley.  A recent drive through this region still revealed miles of rice fields which are usually submerged in water to discourage weed growth and rodents. Today, California is America’s second-largest rice producer, after Arkansas, and the twelfth largest rice producer worldwide and the second largest exporter of rice (the first is Thailand). While the U.S. is a major exporter, they keep about half of their rice for domestic use.

Now to the rices:  With over 40,000 varieties, only a few will be mentioned here.

Long grain rice is a less starchy and therefore a drier rice that remains separate when cooked and goes so well with your favorite saucy dishes like Indian tikka masala.  Here are some favorite long grains:

Jasmine rice is an aromatic long grain rice from Thailand.  It has a pleasant, almost flowery scent when cooking and pairs well with asian dishes.

Basmati rice from the foothills of the Himalayas is another long grain rice and is savory in taste and scent and pairs well with the saucy Indian curries and middle eastern dishes.

Carolina Gold, a long grain rice originally from Madagascar, was originally farmed in the southern part of the US and flourished during the days of slavery.  It is the grandfather of long grain rice in the Americas, is a delicate and non-aromatic rice with starch properties that allows it to be used in long, medium, or short grain recipes.

Wild pecan rice is a long grain rice hybrid developed in the American South. Wild pecan rice (not grown wild or containing either wild rice or pecans) is extremely aromatic, smelling almost like popcorn when it is cooked, typically sold in brown form which retains its outer bran for a rich, nutty flavor reminiscent of pecans.

Medium grain rice is firm but is sticky and has a tendency to clump together when it cools. It’s great for serving with stir-fries, for making risotto, or for rice puddings and other rice desserts.

Calrose rice, also known as sushi rice, is a variety grown in California and is a medium grain rice. This is the type to get if you want a bland, clean taste.  Calrose was developed at the Rice Experiment Station at the University of California at Davis. The cooked grains are soft and stick together, making it good for use in sushi (most sushi restaurants use Calrose).

One famous type of medium grain rice is Arborio, named after the town of Arborio in Italy’s Po Valley where it is grown, which is used to make Italian risotto. The creaminess comes from a high starch content which thickens the liquid as it cooks, creating a creamy texture that gives the dish its signature style. You can substitute other short or medium grain rices, never a long grain rice, but it won’t be as creamy of a risotto.

Black japonica rice has great texture, a nutty, mushroom-like flavor and an exotic sweet spiciness.  It was developed in California from Japanese seeds and is a combination of a medium-grain mahogany rice and a black short-grain rice.  It requires a longer cooking time than even a brown rice.

Short grain rice is round and fat, about as long as it is wide. It gets sticky and viscous because of its high starch content and must be rinsed before cooking.  Some varieties of short grain rice can be used where medium grain rice is called for such as in paella and risotto.

Sticky rice, also known as sweet rice (it’s not sweet) or glutenous rice, is a short-grain rice that must be soaked and steamed rather than boiled, or it will fall apart.

Calasparra Rice is a short grain rice and the only rice we import for our Spanish Paella DIY dinner kit at Passport Dinners (passportdinners.com).  It was the first rice to be awarded with the Denomination of Origin, a guarantee of the finest quality.  It is grown in the mountains of the Province of Murcia in Spain.  As a short grain rice it is able to absorb more liquid and more flavors making this rice the best suited for paella.  Today, Spain is only second to Italy in rice production.

Wild rice is the whole grain grass seed, not a rice, of a cool climate marsh grass native to North America and has a nutty taste and a firm texture.  Wild rice works really well when mixed with brown rice.  Just make sure the wild rice cooks longer (about 10-15 minutes longer) before adding the brown rice.  Compared to brown rice, wild rice is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates and has a significantly lower glycemic load.

My family usually enjoys brown rices because of the chewiness and flavor.  But a nice arborio can’t be beat when making risotto.  And wild rice is always on the table for Thanksgiving.  What’s your family’s favorite rice?



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