Rice is quite possibly the most important food in the world — according to Ricepedia, the online rice authority, more than 3.5 billion people (i.e., half the planet) rely on these miniature grains for more than 20 percent of their daily calories. That’s mainly because, unlike many other crops, rice is actually a semi-aquatic plant that can survive in incredibly wet environments, like Asia, where 90 percent of all rice is produced.
If you have the option, though, some types of rice are healthier than others, which is why I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank the most popular types of rice — from remarkably healthy to… meh.
But first, here’s the method behind our ranking: “The general rule of thumb is, the whiter the rice, the less nutritionally dense it is,” Friedman explains. “The darker varieties of rice (brown, red and black) contain the whole grain, which includes the fibrous bran, the nutritious germ and the carb-rich endosperm. White rice, on the other hand, is processed and stripped of it’s nutritious content — this can lead to a spike in blood sugar levels and an increased appetite.”
Additionally, Friedman says storing your rice correctly is of the utmost importance. “Dry, uncooked white rice is stripped of its ‘living’ whole food nutrients and can last indefinitely in your pantry,” he explains. “However, dry, uncooked brown rice will only last three to six months in the pantry, six to 12 months in the fridge and 12 to 18 months in the freezer. Also, ants and moths love eating rice, so if you’re storing it in your pantry, be sure to use an airtight container.” Friedman also mentions that already-cooked rice should be tossed into the trash after five days, since that’s right about when bacteria begins to grow rapidly, which could possibly cause food poisoning.
With that, let’s rank us some rice…
1) Black Rice: “Despite being called black rice, its color is actually more purple than black,” Friedman explains. “The dark color is a marker of its extremely high antioxidant properties, which explain why black rice comes in at number one. The deep, rich color is produced by an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also found in blueberries and blackberries — anthocyanin can restrict free radicals, which have been attributed to causing heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.”
“The antioxidant content of black rice is six times higher than any other grain and it reduces inflammation in the body better than any other type of rice,” Friedman continues. “The main anti-inflammatory constituent in black rice is called Cyanidin-3-glucoside, which research shows may help combat diseases like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”
If you’re worried about gaining weight, Friedman also says that black rice should be your rice of choice. “Black rice makes you feel full; therefore, it prevents overeating,” he explains. “Black rice can also help prevent insulin resistance, which is often linked to the risk of developing diabetes and obesity.”
2) Wild Rice: “Botanically speaking, wild rice isn’t really rice — it’s considered to be grass,” Friedman says. “Nonetheless, wild rice contains an array of nutrients, including protein, manganese [which promotes normal brain and nerve function], phosphorus [which supports bones and teeth], magnesium [which can fight depression] and zinc [which supports the immune system].”
Similar to black rice, Friedman explains that wild rice is a good choice for anyone watching their weight. “Wild rice has 30 percent fewer calories than brown rice and offers 40 percent more protein,” he says. “Wild rice also has the ability to help balance sugar levels in the body — in fact, replacing white rice for wild rice can aid in reducing insulin resistance and lowering triglyceride levels [which might otherwise raise your risk of heart disease].”
3) Brown Rice: “Brown rice has four times more magnesium than white rice, and this mineral is crucial for heart, bone, muscle and brain health. And unfortunately, more than 50 percent of Americans are magnesium deficient,” Friedman says. “Brown rice is also a good source of thiamine [which helps the body convert carbs to energy], zinc and iron [which supports oxygen-carrying red blood cells]. When comparing the glycemic index (how quickly sugar gets absorbed by the body), brown rice is a better option than white rice. Also, because brown rice contains nourishing vitamins and minerals, opting for brown rice with your moo goo gai pan at your favorite Chinese restaurant will keep you fuller longer.”
“Additionally, brown rice offers 88 percent of your daily requirements of manganese, a mineral that aids in collagen production and supports healthy skin, ligaments and joints,” Friedman continues. “What’s more, people who eat brown rice instead of white rice can decrease their risk of type 2 diabetes by 16 percent.”
Guess that means I’m going to Brown Town! Er, wait…
4) Cauliflower Rice: “Although not technically in the ‘rice’ family, cauliflower rice has become a popular substitute,” says Friedman. “While white rice typically contains less nutritional value than it’s darker counterparts, this rule doesn’t apply to white cauliflower rice — it’s very low in calories and offers almost every vitamin and mineral from A to Z. It’s also loaded with healthy fiber, which is important for digestive health and helps to prevent colon cancer.”
Friedman further explains that cauliflower is high in glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, two groups of antioxidants that have been scientifically shown to slow the growth of cancer cells. “Cauliflower is also a good source of choline, a nutrient that many people are lacking,” Friedman says. “It’s involved in many processes in the body and works to prevent several diseases, including heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s.” Similarly, Friedman mentions that cauliflower is also rich is sulforaphane, a plant-based compound that reduces your risk of developing cancer.
“Lastly, because rice can often leave dishes feeling heavy, cauliflower rice is a nice, lighter substitute and a great way to add another serving of vegetables into your meal,” Friedman emphasizes.
5) Red Rice: “Red rice is a variety of rice that’s colored red because of its high anthocyanin content,” Friedman says — which again, is an antioxidant. “Red rice also contains manganese, which again, can help strengthen bones, reduce painful joints, aid in weight loss and reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.”
“Because it’s less starchy than the whiter varieties of rice, and has a low glycemic index, red rice is an excellent choice for diabetics,” Friedman continues. “Xuezhikang, an extract taken from red rice, is also good for people with cardiovascular diseases, as it can greatly lower LDL (bad) cholesterol — the reason being that it contains a compound called monacolin K, which acts like the drug Lovastatin, prescribed by doctors to lower LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, if you have heart disease, red rice is the healthiest pick on the list.”
6) Basmati Rice: “Basmati rice is slightly softer than jasmine rice, with a less nutty flavor — this makes basmati an easier-to-digest rice option, especially for people with gut issues, like irritable bowel syndrome,” Friedman says. “Basmati rice also contains healthy carbs that can boost your energy, making it a great option for athletes. Additionally, basmati rice is a good source of niacin and thiamine — two nutrients that support a healthy nervous system and aid in combating depression and memory loss.” In that case, I’ll take all the basmati you got. Wait, what am I doing again?
7) Jasmine Rice: “If you want white rice but are looking for a healthier option, reach for jasmine,” Friedman says. “Unlike plain white rice, which is stripped of most nutrients, jasmine rice contains iron and niacin, which help aid in the production of red blood cells in the body and convert carbohydrates to glucose for energy.” However, Friedman also warns, “White jasmine rice has a high glycemic index and may cause a spike in blood sugar, so diabetics should either avoid it or opt for the brown variety of jasmine rice.”
8) Arborio Rice: “Grown only in Italy, arborio rice is what makes your favorite risotto dish creamy and delicious,” Friedman explains. “While arborio rice contains some protein and fat, almost 90 percent of the calories in this rice come from its carbohydrate content. It offers vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and a lot of protein (nine grams per serving), so if you’re trying to bulk up at the gym, this is a great option. However, if you’re trying to lose weight, arborio rice isn’t the best choice — because arborio rice is starchier than any other rice, it also has a higher glycemic index and isn’t a diabetic-friendly option.”
9) White Rice: “White rice is a refined carbohydrate, similar to those found in white bread, flour tortillas and most breakfast cereals,” Friedman explains. “That means the husk, bran and germ are removed, and as a result of this extraction, white rice doesn’t offer the vitamins and minerals that brown, black and red varieties do.”
“Because white rice is an ‘empty food’ — void of nutrients — it gets digested quickly, and it’s rapidly processed into sugar,” Friedman continues. “This leaves you hungry shortly after eating it, which explains why you might feel like stopping for a burger on your drive home from the Chinese restaurant. In comparison, brown rice is processed slowly, churning out a steady stream of fuel to power your body.”
Worse yet, Friedman says that white rice has a high glycemic index, which means diabetics and anyone watching their weight should avoid it at all costs. “The more refined grains you eat, like white bread and white rice, the more likely you are to gain weight,” he explains. “By contrast, the more whole grain foods you consume, like whole wheats and brown rice, the less likely you are to gain weight.”
10) Fried Rice: “While many people order fried rice believing it to be a healthier option, it’s actually just white rice that’s been stir-fried in a wok or a frying pan, then mixed with other ingredients such as eggs, vegetables, seafood and/or meat,” Friedman says. But then again, fried rice made with darker types of rice and loads of vegetables can actually be relatively healthy, so just be sure what you’re actually ordering.
11) Sticky Rice: “Sticky rice is also called ‘glutinous rice,’ but it doesn’t actually contain gluten,” Friedman says. “Glutinous rice gets its sticky texture from a high amylopectin content (which is a type of starch). Sticky rice, however, has negligible amounts of nutrients and isn’t a good source of fiber, vitamins or minerals.”
It’s worth mentioning that there are several types of sticky rice, but most are, more or less, the same (and to be clear, it’s not the same as sushi rice, which is generally a short-grain white rice with a little bit of rice vinegar added for flavor). Friedman mentions that Thai sticky rice, which is usually eaten as a dessert, is the most unhealthy. “It’s made with sweetened condensed milk, coconut milk and mango sauce (which contains high fructose corn syrup),” he says. “This added sugar increases the calorie content and significantly raises your blood sugar. Sticky rice isn’t a diabetic friendly option.”
Now, who wants to take bets on how long before they ask me to rank noodle types? [Editor’s note: Ian, get on this immediately.]