Rice — there is no other crop that has fed more people over a longer period of time. The documentation of rice dates as far back as 2500 B.C., when its cultivation and consumption played an intricate role in Chinese culture and cuisine. The farming of rice has since spread worldwide, making it a staple crop of many cultures. When eaten as part of a balanced meal, small portions of rice can serve as a great energy source. In traditional diets, rice is eaten as a side dish to roasts, stews and curries among other dishes. Rice can also be added to soups, served with vegetables or alongside meats.
While heirloom varieties, such as black and red rice, used to be much more prevalent, white rice has taken over the marketplace largely due to its low cost and short cooking time. Though white rice is fine in moderation, it has been stripped of many important vitamins and minerals in addition to fiber and protein.
As a child growing up in Peru, every meal was served with a side of white rice. At that time, if introduced to other varieties of rice, I would have thought the rice was dirty. But today, even though white rice is still quite dominant, brown and heirloom varieties of rice are starting to make a comeback, working their way into the meals of children and adults alike.
However, not all rice is created equal — here’s why:
Black Rice, also known as “Forbidden Rice,” was highly coveted in ancient China because it was served only to the Chinese Emperor and other officials of the court. Because black rice is usually sold in its un-milled form, it offers a great nutritional profile. The intense black-purple pigment of this rice contains high proportions of anthocyanins and flavonoids. These phytonutrients are rich in anti-oxidant, anti-microbial and anti-carcinogenic properties. Key micronutrients include iron, calcium, potassium and zinc.
Red Rice can be traced back to the Tang dynasty in China. Like black rice, this variety is also rich in anthocyanins, thereby elevating its nutritive profile. While red rice can be found both milled and un-milled, the unprocessed grain is high in protein and dietary fiber. Red rice is especially high in iron and magnesium and aids in blood and cardiovascular health, respectively. Other key micronutrients include calcium, potassium, zinc and niacin.
Brown Rice is the un-milled version of white rice, and has been around since before the documentation of white rice in 2500 B.C. While brown rice was once thought to be inferior to white rice and associated with poverty, it is now recognized for its greater nutritional quality. Brown rice contains many of the nutrients that are removed from white rice during processing, including fiber which is important for weight maintenance as well as the prevention of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Key micronutrients are magnesium, potassium and zinc.
Wild Rice is one of the only grains native to North America. Although commonly mistaken for a type of rice, it is actually an unrelated, aquatic, cereal grain that grows in shallow bodies of water. While most cereal grains contain gluten, wild rice serves as a gluten-free alternative for individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Wild rice is also quite high in protein and dietary fiber. Key micronutrients are iron, potassium, zinc, niacin and folate.
White Rice is by far the most popular type of rice consumed due to its low cost and long shelf life. White rice contains roughly the same amount of calories as other varieties, but its grain has been refined. While many key nutrients, such as fiber and protein, are stripped from white rice during milling, much of the white rice sold in the United States is enriched with thiamine, niacin and iron.
So now that you are a rice connoisseur, you know that not all rice is created equal. And just like fruits and vegetables, you should eat your rainbow of rice to ensure you get all of the macro-, micro- and phytonutrients rice has to offer.
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program and author of three books, Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes and his newest book, Whole Body Reboot: The Peruvian Superfoods Diet to Detoxify, Energize, and Supercharge Fat Loss.