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Let’s Talk Nutrition: The Low-Down on Brown Rice

You’ve heard it….eat more brown rice! Its got more fiber, more vitamins. And gosh, it’s just so easy to make. According to researchers, several servings of brown rice each week could help reduce your risk of getting type 2 diabetes, a condition that’s on the rise in children and adults. But if you’re about to load your plate with brown rice, there’s something else to consider. A recent study identified high levels of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup, used as a sweetener in products such as baby foods and energy bars. Rice plants absorb arsenic – a toxic metal once used in pesticides, and still used in wood treatments. The arsenic is concentrated in the bran layer – which means that levels are lower in white rice. If you’re like many people, you have chosen to eat whole grains for health. So should you avoid brown rice, or is it safe to eat? Can’t a person just enjoy a good stir-fry?

Brown rice – a bowl of good health

Traditionally, the outer hull of rice is removed, leaving the chewy, nutritious brown grain. In the 1800’s, white rice became popular among the wealthy, leaving the brown rice for peasants. A mysterious disease causing weakness and muscle wasting appeared. It took some time, but eventually the connection was made: poor diet led to this disease. A scientist named Dr. Funk identified the health giving components in the outer bran layer, calling them vitamins. When some of these vitamins were sprayed on the white rice, beri-beri disappeared. But nature has a combination of vitamins we can’t re-invent or replace. Whole brown rice is loaded with essential fatty acids, lignans, fiber, thiamin, manganese, magnesium, tryptophan and more.

Today, our understanding of nutrition has gone even further, and we are seeing conditions like diabetes and chronic inflammation from eating refined foods - It’s estimated that 70% of the US rice consumption is white rice.

As a whole grain, brown rice has many benefits compared to white rice.

Blood sugar elevation after a meal

Once we’ve enjoyed the chewy and delicious brown rice, it moves through our digestive system where its tough bran layer slowly breaks down, allowing the starchy part of the grain to be absorbed gradually. This results in a slower spike in our blood sugar. When white rice is eaten, the starchy part of the grain is rapidly absorbed, causing effects in the body similar to eating plain table sugar. Over time, these rapid spikes in blood sugar can lead to exhaustion of pancreatic cells that produce insulin, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Studies show that blood sugar spikes are lower after a meal with brown rice, compared to white rice. In persons without diabetes, glycemic index - a measure of how quickly a food turns to sugar - was 12% lower after eating brown rice. In persons with diabetes, the effect was even stronger – glycemic index dropped 35% with the brown rice diet.

Lower risk of diabetes

Brown rice can also help to keep body fat at healthier levels. People who eat more brown rice have less deep abdominal fat, the type of fat that increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. When researchers analyzed diet surveys from about 200,000 adults, they found that people who ate more white rice had a much higher risk of type 2 diabetes. People who at 5 or more servings of white rice had a 17% higher risk of the disease, compared to people who ate less than one serving a day. In contrast, people who ate 2 servings a day of brown rice had an 11% lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes, compared to those who ate less than one serving a day. Based on these results, researchers estimated that people who switched to whole grains in general, could lower their risk of type 2 diabetes by 36%. Many other factors can promote type 2 diabetes - such as sugar, stress, activity level and stress - but consumption of whole grains instead of refined grains makes a significant difference.

Brown rice and arsenic

Brown rice is clearly a nutritious food. But one grain of rice may be very different than the next. There are many varieties of brown rice that are grown in different areas around the world. The soils of the deep south were soaked with pesticides containing inorganic arsenic (the toxic form linked to cancer discussed in this article) during the early part of the 20th century, when the economy was driven by cotton production. Even though arsenic-containing pesticides have been outlawed, arsenic is persistent in soil. While drinking water is consistently regulated for arsenic levels, food sources are not.

A recent study showed that arsenic levels in brown rice exceeded limits allowed in drinking water. While the recent Dartmouth study focused on products sweetened with organic brown rice syrup, it is the bran layer that concentrates the arsenic. Therefore, brown rice can have high arsenic levels, depending on where it’s grown. Studies tracking arsenic contamination of brown rice have identified more arsenic in brown rice grown in the south compared to brown rice grown in California and some other areas of the world.

Tips for eating brown rice

Now what do you do if you have a 10 pound bag of brown rice in your cabinet? Here are some tips for including (or excluding) brown rice:

1. Avoid or minimize brown rice syrup. As for brown rice, balance your intake by eating a variety of grains and seeds. Other grains do not concentrate arsenic as much as rice does. Quinoa, teff, buckwheat, oats and barley each have unique tastes and blends of nutrients, and can be used creatively in many recipes.

2. If you are on a gluten free diet, you may be using more rice products than others – if you are relying exclusively on rice as a substitute, look for other gluten-free whole grains and seeds to create a more balanced diet.

3. If you prepare food for children, minimize brown rice unless you know the source, and avoid products with brown rice syrup. Dr. Philip Landrigan and other toxicology experts have observed that children respond differently to toxins because of their size and differences in metabolism. Alternative sweeteners could include stevia or agave.

4. Choose brown rice that is lower in inorganic arsenic: identify the source whenever possible.

5. Include foods such as dark leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, nuts and seeds - they contain nutrients such as folate, cystine, choline, iron, zinc, and folate that help the liver to detoxify arsenic. Studies have shown that methylation, a liver detoxification pathway, is more efficient when these nutrients are available in the diet.

Brown rice remains a nutritious food – standards are needed urgently to regulate inorganic arsenic. But we have power on our plates, too: with all of the delicious whole foods available to us, we can create an enjoyable diet that enhances our health.

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