The Brown vs. White Rice Debate & Why I Eat Both

Madeline Nutrition — The Brown vs. White Rice Debate & Why I Eat Both

In some parts of the world, the word "to eat" literally means "to eat rice" — that's how important these little grains are! Yet the rice debate continues to create two camps among the healthy eaters and nutritionists in the U.S. — Isn't brown rice a health food? Why is it causing me to bloat? Does white rice have anything good in it? Let's break it down.

A Whole Grain of Rice

A whole grain of rice has several layers. Only the outermost layer, the hull, is removed to produce what we call brown rice. This process is the least damaging to the nutritional value of the rice and avoids the unnecessary loss of nutrients that occurs with further processing. If brown rice is further milled to remove the bran and most of the germ layer, the result is a whiter rice that is easier to digest, but also a rice that has lost many more nutrients.

Phytic Acid

Whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds all contain a compound called phytic acid (or phytates) that acts as an anti-nutrient, blocking the absorption of essential minerals. Phytates are unable to be digested by humans and can cause irritation to the gut, which is why traditional food prep methods like soaking and sprouting were and should still be practiced. In rice, phytates are found in the rice bran layer — in other words, only in brown rice. Despite a higher nutrient content of brown rice compared to white rice, the anti-nutrients also present in brown rice reduce the bioavailability (effectiveness) of any vitamins and minerals present. 

If you're having trouble digesting brown rice, but can't imagine giving it up, then try the traditional method of soaking brown rice in filtered water with 1-2 T's of apple cider vinegar for 24 hours at room temperature. Be sure to discard the soaking water and proceed to cook the rice in fresh filtered water. 

And for all you white rice lovers out there, isn't it nice to know that starchy foods like white rice are not inherently "evil?" Unless, of course, you have a condition like diabetes and your body can't process starches well. If you feel you are missing out on nutrients and minerals by eating white rice, then cook your white rice in bone broth and top it with some grass-fed butter or ghee and sea salt to round it out.


Another common 'disappointment' with rice is that it has been reported by Consumer Reports Magazine to contain unsafe levels of arsenic. According to the EPA, 5 parts per billion (ppb) is the safe limit set for adults. According to Chris Kresser, "If you choose to purchase white rice, buy a brand made in California like Lundberg; their California White Basmati Rice has only 1.3 to 1.6 ppb arsenic per serving (1/4 cup uncooked), well below the safe limit. In addition, rinsing the rice before cooking and boiling it in a high water-to-rice ratio can help reduce the arsenic content significantly."

It's also worth remembering that rice is not the only source of arsenic in our diets. Tap water can legally contain 10 ppb arsenic per liter, and vegetables rarely escape the ground unscathed.

A New Way to Prepare Brown Rice

I've recently been experimenting with cooking brown rice in a new way, thanks to Saveur Magazine — it's similar to making pasta! I still soak my brown rice, but by boiling the grains and then discarding the cooking water (as you would with old pasta water), you'll be tossing out much of the phytic acid as well.

1. Rinse 1 cup short-grain (my personal fave) brown rice in a strainer under cold running water for 30 seconds. Bring 6 cups water (Saveur suggested 12 cups, but I saw it as a waste) to a boil in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid over high heat. Add the rice, stir it once, and boil, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Pour the rice into a strainer over the sink.
2. Let the rice drain for 10 seconds, then return it to the pot, off the heat. Cover the pot and set it aside to allow the rice to steam for 10 minutes. Uncover the rice, fluff with a fork, and season with salt. 

References: A., B., C., D., E., F.