Brown rice is a highly nutritious grain. It is good for the heart, aids digestion and may reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Rice is a food staple and primary crop grown all over the world. There are several different types of rice — including long-grain basmati, black rice, white rice and sticky (or glutinous) rice — but in terms of health benefits, not all are created equal. Brown rice is one of the healthiest and most-studied types of rice.
Brown rice’s health benefits are partially due to the way it is prepared, according to the George Mateljan Foundation for the World’s Healthiest Foods, which promotes the benefits of healthy eating. White rice was once brown rice, but the hull and bran around the kernel are removed to make it white. With brown rice, only the hull of the rice kernel is removed during preparation. This leaves most of the rice kernel’s nutrition value intact. Brown rice can be turned into white rice by removing and polishing more of the kernel — but with that process comes a loss in nutrients.
When brown rice becomes white rice, large quantities of B vitamins — including 90 percent of the B6 — half the manganese and phosphorus, more than half the iron, and all of the dietary fiber and essential fatty acids are lost. White rice may be enriched with nutrients, but this process does not yield a food as healthy as the original. Nava Atlas, author of several vegetarian cookbooks, wrote on her website, VegKitchen, “Although white rice is fortified, it still doesn’t reach the minimum nutritional requirements for one serving of food as specified by the FDA.”
Brown rice is a highly nutritious food. It is a whole grain that is relatively low in calories (216 calories per cup), high in fiber, gluten-free and can be incorporated into a variety of dishes. Kelly Toups, a registered dietician with the Whole Grains Council, said, “Brown rice is a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, thiamin, niacin and vitamin B6, and an excellent source of manganese, with 88 percent of your daily manganese in just one cup cooked.” She noted that a “good source” food contains at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value of a nutrient in one serving, while an “excellent source” contains at least 20 percent of the recommended daily value of a nutrient in one serving.
Toups told Live Science: “A large study found that those eating the most whole grains had significantly higher amounts of fiber, energy and polyunsaturated fats, as well as all micronutrients (except vitamin B-12 and sodium).”
The USA Rice Federation notes that brown rice contains no trans-fat or cholesterol. It has only trace amounts of fat and sodium.
Here are the nutrition facts for brown rice, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food labeling through the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act:
Toups added that recent research has pointed to even more nutrients residing in brown rice. One article published in Critical Reviews of Science and Nutrition looked at a variety of studies and concluded that whole grains, including brown rice, contain healthy antioxidants, which were previously thought to reside mostly in fruits and vegetables.
Furthermore, Toups noted an article in Plant Foods Human Nutrition that showed the benefits of sprouting your own brown rice. “Brown rice is a reliable healthy option, but research shows that by sprouting it, you might get even more health benefits, like increased dietary fiber (6.1 to 13.6 percent more),” Toups said.
Brown rice health benefits
Brown rice’s high magnesium content is good for your heart, according to Toups. She said, “[Magnesium] is an important mineral for regulating blood pressure and offsetting sodium in the body. Therefore, it’s no surprise that whole grain consumption is associated with healthier carotid arteries and blood pressure levels.”
A three-year study published in American Heart Journal revealed significant benefits for post-menopausal women with cardiovascular disease who ate whole grains, including brown rice, six times a week. The progression of the women’s antherosclerosis (plaque built up in blood vessels) slowed, as did the progression of their stenosis (the narrowing of the diameter of arterial passageways). The study related these benefits to the fiber present in whole grains, which has repeatedly been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, according to the Harvard University School of Public Health. The American Heart Journal study did not find similar benefits for women who got fiber from fruits, vegetables and refined grains like white rice.
Furthermore, brown rice is abundant in the phytonutrient plant lignans, which may protect against various diseases including heart disease. A Danish study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that women who ate a good deal of whole grains had significantly higher levels of this beneficial lignin in their blood.
Digestion and gluten-free diets
Brown rice contains 88 percent of the recommended daily amount of manganese. “Manganese is an important mineral that helps digest fats,” said Toups. Brown rice also contains 3.5 grams of fiber per cup, which is 14 percent of the USDA’s daily-recommended intake. Fiber is well known for its digestive benefits. It helps keep bowel movements regular, reducing constipation, and helps keep bowels healthy, according to the Mayo Clinic, which includes brown rice on its list of high-fiber foods.
Furthermore, brown rice is “naturally gluten-free,” according to the USA Rice Federation. This makes it a popular staple of gluten-free diets, though Live Strong warns that brown rice can become cross-contaminated with gluten in mixed-use kitchens.
According to Toups, manganese can also help you “get the most from proteins and carbohydrates.” It helps turn them into energy so that you can keep moving.
Brown rice also contains protein. “Unlike refined grains, which are missing about 25 percent of the grain’s protein, and are greatly reduced in at least 17 key nutrients, whole grains like brown rice are much healthier,” said Toups. She pointed to a large study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which found that “those eating the most whole grains had significantly higher amounts of … energy.”
Additionally, brown rice is a slow-release carbohydrate, which can help maintain blood sugar levels and keep energy consistent, according to Optimum Nutrition Therapy.
Several studies have noted a possible relationship between brown rice and lowering bad cholesterol levels. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that the oil in brown rice plays an important role. This study looked at volunteers with moderately elevated cholesterol levels and concluded that the rice bran oil lowered their LDL (bad) cholesterol by 7 percent, while eating rice bran itself did not.
Brown rice’s good fiber content may also aid in lowering cholesterol levels. According to Toups, fiber aids in digestion, which requires bile acids, which are made partly with cholesterol. As your digestion improves, the liver pulls cholesterol from the blood to create more bile acid, thereby reducing the amount of LDL.
Toups pointed to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that looked at the effect of whole grains on patients taking cholesterol-lowering medications called statins. Those who ate more than 16 grams of whole grains, like brown rice, daily had lower non-HDL cholesterol levels than those who took the statins without eating the whole grains. “Whole grain intake and statin use were also significantly linked with healthier total cholesterol/HDL-cholesterol ratios and total cholesterol concentrations,” she added.
Brown rice may help lower the risk of cancer thanks in part to its manganese. “Manganese may protect against free radicals, which are cancer-causing agents,” said Toups. Additionally, a British study published in the journal Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention analyzed the phenolic compounds in brown rice, brown rice bran and white rice for compounds associated with cancer suppression or reduction. Brown rice and brown rice bran had much higher concentrations of the useful compounds than white rice.
Brown rice is particularly associated with lowered risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. Brown rice is a good source of selenium, which may be associated with reduced risk of colon and prostate cancer. A large-scale study published in the International Journal of Cancer looked at the lifestyle, blood samples, and dietary practices of over half a million participants in 10 Western European countries and found that higher selenium levels were significantly associated with lower colon cancer risk. Some research also shows that the fiber in brown rice may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Another study published in the International Journal of Cancer found a “moderately reduced” risk of prostate cancer in American black men and white men with higher selenium concentrations in their blood.
A cup of brown rice provides 35 percent of the daily recommended intake of selenium, which helps induce repair in damaged cells, which can help stop cancer cells from spreading, according to World’s Healthiest Foods. It also encourages the body to eliminate outworn or abnormal cells. Selenium also helps several antioxidants, which may be useful in cancer prevention, function properly.
Brown rice may help reduce the risk of breast cancer through its dietary fiber content. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology looked at more than 35,000 women who consumed widely different amounts of dietary fiber and found that in pre-menopausal women, fiber from whole grains was significant in protecting against breast cancer.
Toups pointed out that eating a lot of whole grains, such as brown rice, is associated with reduced risk of several diseases, including Type 2 diabetes. Recent studies are starting to look at brown rice and diabetes in particular. Toups referenced an Indian study of overweight individuals designed to look at diabetes risk and brown rice. Here, “the researchers found that IAUC (incremental area under the curve, a measure of blood sugar management) was 19.8 percent lower for the group eating brown rice and 22.9 percent lower for the group eating brown rice and legumes, as compared to the group eating white rice,” said Toups. “Fasting insulin was also markedly lower in the two brown rice phases of the study, showing brown rice’s potential role in reducing risk of diabetes.”
Brown rice might also be beneficial for those already have Type 2 diabetes. A small study in the Philippines published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition compared the effects of eating brown or white rice on blood glucose levels in healthy and diabetic volunteers. Both groups showed reduced blood glucose levels eating brown rice instead of white, with the diabetic group showing a 35 percent reduction. Another study found similar results in American men and women.
Whole grains, including brown rice, have recently been shown to be as antioxidant-rich as many fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants are known to function as anti-inflammatories that can help with everything from arthritis to asthma, according to World’s Healthiest Foods.
According to Toups, brown rice in particular has been linked with decreased inflammation. She described a study of 40 overweight or obese women. “Participants were asked to consumer either 150 grams [about 5 ounces] of brown rice or the same amount of white rice daily, as part of a prescribed weight-loss diet. Eating brown rice had beneficial impact on both inflammation and cardiovascular risk markers, including decreases in weight, waist and hip circumference, BMI, diastolic blood pressure and hs-CRP,” said Toups.
Plenty of fad diets tout the virtues of avoiding carbs, but brown rice shows it’s not that simple. This whole grain is a carbohydrate that, studies show, may actually help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied over 70,000 American women free from serious illness for 12 years and found that “weight gain was inversely associated with the intake of high-fiber, whole-grain foods but positively related to the intake of refined-grain foods.” This reinforces the differences between refined grains like white rice and whole grains like brown rice.
Another study conducted in South Korea found that overweight women who replaced one meal a day with a mix of brown and black rice for six weeks lost more weight and showed an increase in good cholesterol and antioxidant activity than those who replaced one meal with white rice.
Metabolic syndrome risk reduction
A study published in Diabetes Care suggested that eating whole grains like brown rice may help lower the risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a strong predictor of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Its symptoms include belly fat, low levels of good (HDL) cholesterol, high blood pressure and high triglycerides levels. The study followed more than 2,000 people for four years and found that metabolic syndrome was 38 percent lower in those who had high levels of whole grain fiber. On the other hand, those who had high glycemic indexes from eating refined foods were 141 percent more likely to develop metabolic syndrome.
Risks of eating brown rice
In 2012, Consumer Reports published an article stating that while arsenic is naturally present in a variety of foods, it is more likely to contaminate brown rice because brown rice absorbs a great deal of water while growing. However, the Food and Drug Administration analyzed over 1,000 rice samples, and in 2014 stated, “the arsenic levels that FDA found in the samples it evaluated were too low to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects.” The FDA advised maintaining a diet that includes a variety of whole grains. Additionally, those concerned about arsenic levels can cook their rice in six times the normal amount of water and reduce the arsenic level by about half, according to the FDA.
More than 740 million tons of rice were produced worldwide in 2013, according to National Geographic. Most of it, about 671 million tons, was grown in Asia. The Americas were second, with 36 million tons, while Africa was third, with 28 million tons.
Recent archaeological discoveries have found primitive rice seeds and ancient farm tools dating back about 9,000 years in China, according to the World’s Healthiest Foods.
Arab traders introduced rice into ancient Greece, and Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) brought it to India.
The Moors brought rice to Spain in the eighth century, and the Spanish introduced it into South America in the 17th century.
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