by David Greenwalt
Brown rice is a whole grain; white rice is not.
Brown rice contains more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients than white rice.
Seems like brown rice is the clear winner in terms of health, right?
Some have suggested that it may not be quite so clear. All those extra vitamins and minerals in brown rice are accompanied by phytates – molecules that can limit absorption of some nutrients.
In recent years, there has also been concern over levels of arsenic – a toxic metal – in rice, and especially in brown rice.
This article will take a closer look at the differences between brown and white rice, and the ways that they can affect your health.
Nutrients in Brown Rice versus White Rice
The difference between brown rice and white rice is similar to the difference between whole wheat flour and white flour. White rice, just like refined white flour, has been processed to remove parts of the grain.
Grains naturally contain 3 parts – the bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat contain all 3 parts. Refined grains like white flour and white rice have had the bran and germ removed, leaving only the endosperm.
This is important because the bran and the germ contain most of a grain’s beneficial nutrients – including most of the fiber, potassium, and magnesium.
When the bran and germ are stripped away, as in white rice, many nutrients are removed as well.
Nutrients in White Rice versus Brown Rice
|Nutrient||White Rice (1 cup, cooked)||Brown Rice (1 cup, cooked)|
|Vitamin B6 (mg)||0.1||0.3|
|Omega-3 fatty acids (mg)||20.5||25.4|
Sources: https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list, http://www.nutritiondata.self.com
People who eat more whole grains including brown rice, with all of these beneficial nutrients, are at lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers (1, 2).
The bottom line:
Brown rice contains higher concentrations of nutrients than white rice. People who eat more whole grains including brown rice are less likely to get a number of diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Does the fiber in brown rice really matter?
Many people who choose brown rice over white do so because they have heard it is a whole grain with a lot more fiber than white rice. Brown rice does have more fiber – but is it enough to make a real difference in your health?
One cup of brown rice only provides 1.8 grams more fiber than the same amount of white rice. This does not sound like much – after all, just adding an apple to your day would give you over 4 grams of fiber!
The sad truth is, however, that most American adults only get about half the recommended amount of fiber. Total dietary fiber intake should be 25-30 grams per day; most American adults get about 15 grams. (This goes along with the fact that most Americans fall far short on the recommended intakes for fruit, vegetables and whole grains – the best sources of fiber).
Given that most people struggle to get enough fiber, choosing brown rice over white is one simple change that could be made to move closer to getting the recommended amounts, and all of the health benefits that fiber provides.
High fiber diets can improve cholesterol levels, improve blood sugar levels, and help with weight management (3, 4).
High fiber intake is also associated with lower risk of colorectal and breast cancer (4).
The bottom line:
Brown rice provides more fiber than white rice. While the amount is not huge, it can help you move toward getting the recommended daily amount of fiber and the health benefits that fiber provides.
Antioxidants in Brown versus White Rice
In addition to its other nutritional advantages, brown rice contains more antioxidants than white rice (5, 6).
This is important because foods high in antioxidants can decrease risk of many diseases, including diabetes, obesity, cancer, and heart disease (5, 7).
In one study of 40 overweight women, those given a mixture of brown and black rice (also a whole grain) had higher levels of antioxidant activity than those given the same amount of white rice (8).
A study in animals concluded that white rice may worsen antioxidant status, and lead to more cellular damage by free radicals (9).
The bottom line:
Brown rice contains more antioxidants than white rice, which can lower risk of many diseases.
Phytates in Brown Rice
Brown rice also contains phytates, while white rice does not.
Phytates are molecules naturally present in whole grains, legumes, and other foods. They can attach to the zinc, iron, and calcium in foods, decreasing the amount of those minerals that get absorbed.
This could potentially be a concern in countries where brown rice is consumed daily and where risk of mineral deficiencies is high. In Bangladesh and Cambodia, for example, people get about 75% of their daily calories from rice (10).
In those countries, however, typically white rice is eaten. Unfortunately, there really is no data about the impact of phytates if brown rice were to be eaten at such high levels.
In countries like the United States where rice is eaten at more moderate levels and mineral deficiencies are rare, phytates are unlikely to cause mineral deficiencies.
Overt zinc deficiency is rare in North America (11). Similarly, according to the National Institutes of Health, phytates and other inhibitors of iron absorption have little effect on most people’s iron status, when they are part of a typical mixed western diet (12).
Even for those who eat brown rice daily (1-3 cups a day, for instance) phytates are not likely to cause mineral deficiencies as long as it is eaten as part of a varied diet.
The bottom line:
Brown rice contains phytates, which limit absorption of some minerals. For people who eat a variety of foods, however, this is unlikely to cause nutrient deficiencies or any other health problems.
Arsenic in Rice
Arsenic is a heavy metal that has been associated with numerous health problems.
Studies of mice and humans have shown drinking water containing high levels of inorganic arsenic for many years could lead to cardiovascular problems as well as cancers of the bladder, lung, liver, and prostate (13).
In 2012 and 2014, Consumer Reports published reports of tests showing that rice and rice products contained detectable levels of arsenic (14). Brown rice had higher levels of arsenic than white rice.
To date, however, no studies have shown a link between eating rice containing arsenic and health problems (13).
The bottom line:
Brown rice has higher levels of arsenic than white rice. While water containing high levels of arsenic does pose health risks, no studies have linked arsenic-containing rice to health problems.
Rice and Cancer Risk
Following the Consumer Reports publications on arsenic in rice, researchers at Harvard decided to look more closely at rice intake and risk of chronic disease.
The researchers analyzed data looking at cancer occurrence in over 200,000 men and women over 26 years (15). People who ate the most rice were no more likely to get cancer than people who ate the least rice. This held true for brown rice as well as white rice. The researchers looked at specific cancer types – including bladder, lung, and prostate. Eating more rice did not increase risk of any of these types of cancer.
Eating brown rice may even lower risk of breast cancer. One recent study reported that each 2 servings per week of brown rice decreased risk of breast cancer before menopause by 9%, and decreased risk of overall breast cancer by 6% (16).
The bottom line:
There is no evidence that eating any type of rice causes cancer. Eating brown rice may even lower risk of breast cancer.
Rice and Cardiovascular Disease
Eating white or brown rice does not increase risk of cardiovascular disease.
That was the finding of researchers who analyzed data from over 200,000 men and women in the United States. They concluded that rice consumption does not pose a significant cardiovascular disease risk among the U.S. population at the levels that it is typically eaten (17).
In other countries, however, where rice is eaten much more frequently, data on rice intake and CVD has been mixed.
One study in Japan found that men who ate more rice were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease; another Japanese study found no link (18, 19).
A study in Chinese adults reported that greater carbohydrate intake, primarily from white rice, was associated with greater risk of coronary artery disease. Those who ate the most white rice and wheat (equal to more than 3-1/2 to 4 cups of white rice per day) were almost 3 times more likely to get heart disease than those who ate the least amounts (20).
Researchers reviewing numerous studies of rice consumption and overall risk of death found no association (21).
People in Japan have the longest life expectancy of any country in the world (
The bottom line:
At levels eaten in the U.S., there is no evidence that eating any type of rice increases risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies in other countries have had mixed results.
Brown Rice may lower risk of Diabetes
A large study by researchers at Harvard found that people who ate at least 2 servings of brown rice per week were 11% less likely to get diabetes than people who ate less than 1 serving per month (23).
White rice, in contrast, was linked to increased risk of diabetes. Those who ate at least 5 servings of white rice per week were 17% more likely to develop diabetes than those who ate less than 1 serving per month (23). In this study, a serving was defined as 1 cup of cooked rice.
The researchers estimated that replacing 50 grams a day of white rice with brown rice would lower risk of diabetes by 16% (23).
The different effects of white rice and brown rice on diabetes risk may have to do with their fiber content and effect on blood sugar.
Foods that contain fiber are absorbed more slowly, causing blood sugar levels to rise more slowly. Since brown rice contains about twice as much fiber as white rice, it does not cause blood sugar to spike as quickly.
Another way to look at this is by comparing the glycemic indexes for the two types of rice. Glycemic index is a measure of how much a food causes blood sugar to rise after eating it. The glycemic index of white rice is 72, while that of brown rice is only 50 (24).
Glycemic Index of White versus Brown Rice
|FOOD||Glycemic index (glucose = 100)||Serving size (grams)||Glycemic load per serving|
|White rice, boiled, type non-specified||72||150||29|
|Brown rice, steamed||50||150||16|
Higher glycemic index has been consistently associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes (25, 26, 27, 28).
The bottom line:
Brown rice seems to lower risk of diabetes, while white rice may increase risk.
Brown Rice May Help with Weight Management
Fiber-containing foods cause a feeling of “fullness” and have been linked to decreased risk of obesity (29, 30). Since brown rice contains about twice as much fiber as white rice, it makes sense that it could be better for controlling weight.
One randomized-controlled trial of overweight and obese women compared the effects of eating either white rice or brown rice daily for 6 weeks. Following the brown rice diet, participants had significantly lower body weight, reduced waist and hip circumference, and lower body mass index (BMI) (31).
Brown rice contains more health-promoting nutrients than white rice. It has more fiber, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, healthy fats, and antioxidants.
While brown rice does contain phytates and higher levels of arsenic than white rice, no adverse health effects have been linked to it.
In fact, brown rice seems to lower risk of diabetes and possibly some types of cancer. It may also benefit those trying to watch their weight.
For those who choose to include rice in their diets, we consider it prudent to choose brown over white rice. Up to a few cups per day should not pose any health risk, as long it is eaten as part of a varied diet including plenty of fruits, vegetables, and sources of protein.