Rice: A closer look on the debate

Rice: A closer look on the debate
Photo Credit: Rex Pirie

Photo Credit: Rex Pirie

Back in May, a debate about white rice versus brown rice erupted in Singapore. This came hot on the heels of an article in the Straits Times which reported that white rice was worse than sugary drinks in inducing diabetes, citing a report presented by Zee Yoong Kang, the Chief Executive of the Health Promotion Board.

A key takeaway of the article was that simply replacing 20 per cent of your white rice intake with brown rice could lower your risk of diabetes by 16 per cent. That is a dramatic statement to make, and one that deserves a closer look.

Photo Credit: Brad Collis

Photo Credit: Brad Collis

How rice is processed and packaged

To start off, we have to go back to how white rice and brown rice are processed. The introduction to this article would imply that white rice and brown rice are two very different types of rice – but they are in fact quite similar.

Rice is basically a seed that consists of a non-edible husk. It comes in long and short grain variants, with the difference being the starch content. Long grain rice has longer starch content compared to short grain rice. If you are unsure which is which, associate them with sushi rice and chicken rice respectively.

 

When the rice is ready to be harvested, it will be de-husked, leaving you with brown rice. Further processing to remove the bran and germ layers leaves you with white rice. This is where the argument as to why brown rice is healthier begins to find its foothold. While the removal of bran and germ layers increases the shelf life of white rice, it does so at the cost of removing the nutritional benefits found in these layers such as fibre, B Vitamins and other minerals.

 

The arguments for brown rice

The “brown rice is healthier” argument boils down to two main points – the previously mentioned higher nutritional content and a lower Glycaemic Index. The Glycaemic Index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale of 0-100 based on how a particular food containing carbohydrates would raise blood sugar levels – the faster it raises the blood sugar levels in two hours, the higher the ranking. It is also worthy to note that a GI of 70 or more is considered high while a GI of 55 or less is considered low.

As the pancreas produces insulin to allow sugar to be absorbed by your muscle and fat, a spike in blood sugar levels will require the pancreas to work harder, which will lead to a decreased efficiency in absorbing the sugar – thus leaving them in the blood, which can damage the kidneys and ultimately leads to diabetes.

While the Glycaemic Index is useful in creating more meaningful data out of the mere carbohydrate value of the food, it is limited in its real life application. (Click here to find out how the Glycaemic Index is measured) For instance, while the GI of pure white short grain rice is 98, it is drastically reduced to 50 when combined and consumed with chicken breast, groundnut oil and vegetables. For reference, brown short grain rice has a GI of 76.

To keep the argument balanced, there is a point made by the “white rice” camp that while the bran and germ layers result in higher nutrition, it also introduces Phytic acid consumption, a substance that is not present in white rice. While Phytic acid is touted as having antioxidant effects, it is also known as an anti-nutrient as it binds minerals in the guts before they can be absorbed and digested.

Is there conclusive evidence that brown rice is healthier than white rice?

White rice was once brown rice, hence both brown rice and white rice contains similar amount of calories and carbohydrates.  What makes brown rice a healthier option is due to the hull and bran around the kernel which contains a large quantities of Vitamin Bs, minerals such as manganese, phosphorus and iron, antioxidants (e.g. vitamin E & selenium) and dietary fibre. 

The evidence for eating wholegrain products as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle is growing. Regular consumption of wholegrain products help to keep us healthy and may assist to reduce the risk of many common chronic diseases and obesity. Fiber content in the wholegrain products such as brown rice, oats and chapatti, provides bulk in the diet to promote feelings of fullness. The soluble fiber content in wholegrain products can help to lower our low-density lipoprotein (LDL) i.e. the “bad” cholesterol in our blood.

Increased dietary fibre intake has been associated with improved insulin sensitivity for better blood glucose control. Several studies have provided evidence for reducing the risk of diabetes with increased intake of whole grains and dietary fibre. Whole grains are advocated by both the My Healthy Plate guideline by Health Promotion Board and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH).

- Candy Chan, Dietitian, Sengkang Health

What are your thoughts about using Glycaemic Index (GI) to explain why brown rice is a healthier choice than white rice?

GI should not be used as a sole indicator for making food choices as GI can also be affected by many other factors such as fat content, cooking methods, ripeness of fruits etc. In addition, the GI value only represents the rate of carbohydrate absorption into the body but it does not reflect the amount of carbohydrate being consumed. Low GI foods may also contain high calorie content. In another words, the blood sugar level of a person with diabetes may rise to a high level if he or she consumes a large amount of low GI foods. Therefore, portion size control and choosing the right type of carbohydrates are crucial in maintaining optimal blood glucose levels and healthy weights.

- Candy Chan, Dietitian, Sengkang Health

What are your thoughts on the effects of phytic acid on the overall nutritional value of brown rice?

Phytate (the salt of phytic acid) can be found in all plant seeds, nuts, legumes and grains. Phytate often referred as an anti-nutrient as it can inhibit the absorption of some essential minerals, such as iron, calcium and zinc. Nevertheless, phytates may have some health benefits, including anti-cancer and anti-oxidant properties. Generally, in populations that observe well balanced diets, the health benefits of phytates in brown rice and other whole grains outweigh its minor inhibitory effect.

- Candy Chan, Dietitian, Sengkang Health

So, what is it then?

Once again, the debate between consuming white rice or brown rice will continue. While the advice is not conclusive, the debate on this is encouraging. After the “rice is worse than sugary drinks” article was published on May 6, what followed was a rekindled interest to the subject. Follow up articles and OP-EDs were published and social media provided a platform for an open discussion.

We need to shift our focus away from the white rice versus brown rice debate. It is definitely more important to look at our diet as a whole and make the appropriate lifestyle choices, i.e. eat a healthy balanced diet, stay active and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

-  Candy Chan, Dietitian, Sengkang Health
Photo Credit: http2007

Photo Credit: http2007

The white versus brown rice debate has surfaced a lot of information into the public eye. For this writer, it’s clear that it’s not just what you eat, but how you eat your rice, what you eat with it and the kind of lifestyle you have. Rice is just part of a fascinating puzzle in the topic on healthy food choices.


This series is made possible through our collaboration with Sengkang Health, a SingHealth institution that aims to build a community compact for a healthier Northeast. We have worked with the doctors of Sengkang Health in creating this health series. Let us know if you want to see more similar content in the comment section below and check out the other articles of this 6-part series.