Growing up with a Filipino dad, we always had a pot of white rice on the go. Rice with breakfast, rice with dinner. The only time rice wasn't typically on the menu was dessert. According to the International Rice Research Institute, more than 3.5 billion people depend on rice for more than 20% of their daily calories – and these folks aren't eating the brown stuff. As fuel for half of the world's population, is white rice actually bad for you?
While it may seem like white rice is an ancient traditional food, until fairly recently, the hulled and polished rice was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. Common folk only partially removed the bran by beating or grinding. The obvious benefit to refining rice and other grains is that without perishable bran and germ, the grains can be stored for much longer.
You can find plenty of sources that blame white rice as a scourge of modern health, but my gut says that the issues are less due to the starches from white rice, and more likely to blame on over-processed vegetable oils, chemicals, and preservatives in our food supply.
Why I switched back from brown to white
Like many well-intending health food fanatics, I spent years convinced that not only were brown rice and other whole grains better for me, but that I actually preferred brown rice to white.
Truth? Even when I soak or sprout it, I feel bloated and sluggish after eating brown rice. When I eat white rice, I have no problems at all. And while I can appreciate the nutty flavor of brown rice, it doesn't beat the simple comfort of a bowl of steaming white rice.
If you've bought into the health benefits of brown rice, this may seem absurd. Brown rice is health food, right?
The bad news about brown rice
Brown rice lovers tout the health benefits of eating the ‘whole grain', pointing out that the valuable nutrition of rice and other grains is located in the outer layers, called the germ and bran.
Unfortunately, these treasures are also locked up in there with phytic acid which binds to otherwise useful minerals rendering them useless to the human body.
What about fiber? While fiber is touted as a miracle food for everything from constipation to colon cancer, it is actually pretty easy to eat too much, which can stretch the intestinal tract out of normal range and destroy beneficial bacteria in the gut. Too much fiber may lead to gas, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease – basically the very conditions that fiber is meant to heal. (source) My take away? No need to go overboard with fiber, and if you're eating seasonal fruits and veggies you're probably getting plenty.
My final issue with brown rice is the polyunsaturated oils located in the germ layer of the grain. This fat is unstable and is likely to go rancid by the time the brown rice hits your plate. Your rice is better off without them.
That's three strikes for the brown rice: phytic acid, excessive fiber, and polyunsaturated oils.
By hulling and polishing rice both the bad stuff and the good stuff are removed, and what remains is a simple starch. White rice is just a useless starch devoid of nutrients, right?
Why I'm not missing the nutrients in white rice
White rice doesn't have a bunch of nutrients, but it also doesn't have a bunch of stuff that messes with digestion and makes me feel awful either. Despite the fears of low-carbers and modern nutritionists, the simple starch in white rice is generally a benign fuel source for the body.
Some days, like when I'm off playing in the ocean, hiking, or chasing my kids, I need extra fuel. Other days – say when I'm sitting at this computer typing for 8 hours straight, I may need less. Regardless of my personal caloric requirements, starches are not evil unto themselves unless you have a condition such as diabetes where your body cannot handle starches.
When I have it on hand, I cook my white rice in beef or chicken bone broth which is packed with minerals, gelatin, and glycosaminoglycans. These nutrients are known to benefit teeth, bones, hair, nails, and joints. (Learn to make chicken bone broth here or beef bone broth here). Want the health benefits of bone broth, but don't want to make your own? Buy bone broth online here.
I love to serve my broth-cooked rice with saucy, meaty, buttery dishes and seasonal vegetables – so not only is there something to sop up the liquid, but my family and I are getting plenty of nutrients from the rest of the meal too.
This is the main reason why I don't worry about the nutrients missing in white rice: when the rest of my food is charged with nutrition, I'm not desperately seeking unavailable nutrients bound up in rice kernels.
Still don't want the white? Soaking is not enough!
Be honest with yourself. Do you really prefer the taste and texture of brown rice?
If so, you don't necessarily have to give it up, you simply may want to prepare your rice properly if you want to digest it properly.
For some grains, nuts, and seeds, it's simply enough to soak overnight to begin the germination process, which releases phytase, the enzyme which is necessary to break down phytic acid – thereby making the grain more digestible. Learn more about phytic acid and other anti-nutrients in grains here.
Rice is naturally lower in phytic acid than other grains, but it is also low in phytase. Because of this, soaking alone is not adequate to neutralize the phytic acid. Fermentation, however, acidifies the soaking medium, which activates the small amounts of phytase present in the rice. More importantly, the fermentation process cultivates microorganisms that produce their own phytase to counteract the phytic acid. (source)
Here's how to properly prepare brown rice via fermentation:
- Soak brown rice in filtered water (no chlorine or fluoride!) for 24 hours at room temperature without changing the water.
- Reserve 10% of the soaking liquid (it should keep for a long time in the fridge). Discard the rest of the soaking liquid; cook the rice in fresh water.
- The next time you make brown rice, use the same procedure as above, but add the soaking liquid you reserved from the previous batch to the new soaking water for the new rice. (In a pinch you could also soak with whey or apple cider vinegar, but my guess is that the fermented rice water is best).
- Repeat the cycle. The process will gradually improve until 96% or more of the phytic acid is degraded after 24 hours of soaking.
Well, there you have it. White rice isn't evil. Brown rice isn't so great – unless you prepare it properly through fermentation or you're a mouse. Personally, I'm going to make my life easy and eat my white rice – cooked in bone broth and topped with butter.