Brown rice just sounds healthier, doesn’t it? Doctors and dieticians have told the public for years that “white” foods are off limits—offering nothing but empty calories. And sure, that might apply to Wonder Bread, or Crisco, or Cool Whip. But just because you add brown rice to your cheese- and guac-smothered burrito at Chipotle doesn’t necessarily make it more healthy. In some circles, white rice is actually considered the superior grain.
Record-scratch moment, right? Filling—but boring—plates of brown rice and veggies have long been part of the diets of thin celebs. And now it turns out that white rice isn’t so bad after all? Let’s do some mythbusting and break down the real differences between the two.
What’s the difference between brown and white rice?
Brown rice has an outer layer called the husk, hull, or bran, and it’s responsible for the tan color, chewier texture, and nutty flavor. White rice started out brown, but has gone through a milling process that removes the bran. It’s milder in taste, softer, and easier to digest.
Almost every variety of rice (like basmati, jasmine, and American long-grain) comes in brown or white—the only difference is that outer layer.
Calories and nutrition
Overall, the nutritional difference between the brown and white rice is very minimal. The main argument for choosing brown is that it has a lower glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index is a system that ranks carbohydrates on a scale of 0 to 100—the higher the food ranks, the more it raises blood sugar levels. High GI foods are digested quickly and usually cause blood glucose levels to shoot up, but low GI foods are absorbed and processed more slowly and cause a more gradual rise in overall glucose levels. Brown rice has a GI of 50, while white basmati rice (one of the most popular varieties) ranks at 67 on the index. It’s clear that brown rice wins the GI battle.
But what most people don’t take into account when comparing the two is that rice is usually paired with other low GI foods like veggies, healthy fats, and proteins. When eaten with foods that are digested more slowly, white rice won’t have the same skyrocketing effects on blood sugar. So unless you’re eating rice all by its lonesome, you don’t need to sweat the differences in GI as much.
Because white and brown rice are nearly the same, their macronutrient content is almost identical. Other than that pesky bran, which provides extra fiber and minimal amounts of healthy fats, there’s really no difference.
- 215 calories
- 2 grams of dietary fat
- 45 grams of carbohydrates
- 4 grams of fiber
- 5 grams of protein
It’s not a stellar nutritional profile, especially for those on low-carb diets, but it’s definitely not bad, either. When compared to an equal amount of white rice, it’s not clear which is better.
- 205 calories
- 0 grams of dietary fat
- 45 grams of carbohydrates
- 1 gram of fiber
- 4 grams of protein
Pretty similar, right? Although brown rice technically has four times the amount of fiber, it’s such a negligible amount that it doesn’t really make a huge difference. Other than 10 measly calories and minor difference in fat, white and brown rice essentially offer your body the same nutrients.
The vitamin and mineral content of both brown and white rice is pretty minimal. The outer layer of brown rice has a small amount of B vitamins and copper, and about 25 percent of the daily recommended value of magnesium and selenium. Stripping that bran off to make white rice means losing a fair amount of the micronutrients. But parboiling rice before milling—which is common practice in some developing countries—actually causes those beneficial compounds to migrate to the inner white layer anyway.
Here’s where things get interesting. White rice is Paleo, but brown rice is not. Why? It has to do with that outer bran. Although Paleo diet plans tend to be lower in carbohydrates, remember, it’s not the grains themselves that are considered “bad.” It’s the antinutrients—like phytic acid and goitrogens—which usually coat grains and legumes and act as a defense mechanism against predators (in other words, animals and humans). Though not fatal, antinutrients do prevent nutrient absorption and cause gastrointestinal distress in some people.
The bran of brown rice is full of phytic acid—but white rice doesn’t have any. Once that layer is stripped away, rice suddenly becomes way easier for the body to digest and use for fuel—it’s essentially pure carbohydrates. White rice is often enriched with micronutrients, too, and because it doesn’t have those antinutrients that inhibit absorption, it might be even better for you than brown rice. If eating brown rice causes side effects like gas, bloating, nasal congestion, lethargy, cramps, constipation, and diarrhea (as it does in some with digestive issues) for you, it’s probably a good idea to stick to white.
How to cook rice
Despite the fact that it doesn’t have a lot of nutrients, rice is one of the main food groups for millions of people around the world. In developing countries where fresh foods are expensive or difficult to grow, rice is an especially important staple as it doesn’t spoil, is easy to digest, and offers a solid amount of calories. It’s not unhealthy or processed, either, and also happens to be pretty tasty.
Whichever variety you choose, cooking perfect rice without a rice cooker can be challenging. Either you burn the bottom or it ends up as a mushy mess. Here’s how to cook sublime rice (every time) in just six steps.
- If you’re working with white rice, rinse the grains to remove any extra starch that could be lingering. Extra starch makes rice chewy and sticky, and rinsing helps maintain a firm texture that doesn’t feel gummy. Brown rice doesn’t require rinsing, although soaking rice overnight can help neutralize antinutrients.
- Carefully measure out the right amount of water. Too much and your rice will end up with a porridge-like consistency (no thanks), but too little will leave you with hard, burnt rice. Typically, the ratio is 1 ¼ cup of water to 1 cup of rice, but double check the package instructions for specifics. Bring the water to a boil.
- Add rice in once the water is boiling, then cover and reduce to a simmer. Then—this is important!—leave the pot alone. No stirring, as this activates the starches in rice and can make it come out mushy and sticky.
- Cooking times will vary depending on the amount and type of rice you’re cooking, so again, follow the package instructions. A good rule of thumb is to turn off the heat once air tunnels form in the rice. They look like little steam volcanoes, and there should be a little water left in the bottom of the pot.
- Let rice sit for at least 5 minutes after you pull it off the heat. This allows the grains to absorb any extra moisture and firm up.
- Fluff! Use a fork to fluff the rice, and then serve immediately.
Brown and white rice recipes
Yes, rice is high in carbohydrates, but that doesn’t make it unhealthy. When paired with high protein or high-fiber foods (we’re looking at you, beef and broccoli), it can really round out a solid meal. Here are some of our all-time fave Thrive Market rice recipes—feel free to use brown or white, depending on your personal preference. And now that you’re a rice-cooking expert, there’s no excuse not to try them all!
Spicy kimchi adds crunch and flavor to crispy fried rice. Top off a bowl with a soft-boiled egg for a filling breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The perfect way to use day-old rice, this salad relies on a bright and gingery dressing for extra moisture and flavor, and edamame and salmon for a double-whammy of protein.
One pot. Zero problems. This is the definition of a lazy-person’s dinner—and we love it.
Making rice pudding with brown rice adds a tad more texture, but you can use short-grain white rice if you prefer a more classic take.
Inspired by a popular Japanese “hangover” food, our rice and salmon bowl is topped with salty, flavorful toppings and finished off with a drizzle of hot matcha green tea.
A gorgeous, bright bowl of veggies is great on its own, but transforms into complete meal perfection served alongside white or brown rice.
This is not your nonna’s risotto—spirulina adds a punch of nutrients to a rich and filling Italian classic.
White rice or brown rice?
Taking everything into consideration, it seems that choosing the “healthier” rice variation depends on your goals and personal taste. If avoiding antinutrients or foods that cause inflammation is important to you, white rice is probably better. But those concerned with blood glucose levels and getting enough fiber might want to opt for brown. It’s reasonable to assume that many people won’t be concerned with either of those points, in which case you should pick the type of rice you think tastes better—it’s that simple!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho