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Brown or white: Which rice or sugar is better for your health? We ask a dietitian

White rice may be more beneficial than brown rice for some people.
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  • White rice is less nutritious than brown rice, leading many people to include the latter as a better option in their diet.
  • However, white rice can be more beneficial for certain people and in specific circumstances.
  • As for sugar, while brown is better than white, neither of them are recommended as part of a healthy diet.

Comparing all the countless rice and sugar options on the market today can leave you standing in the grocery aisle, scratching your head in confusion.

From basmati to long-grain and brown rice, and granulated and coarse to brown and muscovado sugar, there’s so much variety to suit any taste and dietary need.

Rice, a food staple for more than 3.5 billion people across the worldis particularly enjoyed in Asia, Latin America, and parts of Africa. According to Healthline, there are more than 7,000 varieties of the grain, ranging from different colors to shapes and sizes. However, for many of us, the most commonly consumed types in South Africa – and many other countries – are white and brown rice.

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But when it comes to choosing between white and brown rice, many of us believe that brown rice boasts greater nutritional benefits. So, how true is this? We asked a dietitian.

Dietitian’s response

Both brown and white rice come from the same grain, but as a past News24 article explained, when brown rice goes through a refining process to remove the hull and bran (the brown stuff), it becomes white rice. Unfortunately, this process strips out nutrients such as iron, vitamins and magnesium.

Registered dietitian, Toni Brien from Crazy4Foodexplains:

Generally speaking, brown rice is more nutritious than white rice. This is because it is less processed and thus contains more fibre, magnesium and antioxidants than white rice.

Brien adds that this hearty, nutty-flavored rice also has a lower GI (glycaemic index) compared with white rice. The NHS explains that GI is a rating system for foods containing carbohydrates and shows how quickly each food affects your blood sugar (glucose) level when that food is eaten on its own.

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“[A lower GI] helps to control blood sugar levels and sustain you for a longer period of time,” says Brien. She adds that most varieties of brown rice have a low to intermediate GI, whereas most white rices have an intermediate GI. However, this does not mean that white rice is entirely bad for you. Brian says:

Both white and brown rice can be included in a healthy, balanced diet as long as the portion size is controlled. In some cases, white rice is … better than brown rice, as in the case of people with digestive issues who struggle to digest large amounts of fibre.

Healthline also explains that white rice is often unfairly criticized. Earlier this year, the lead researcher behind a study stated that “a diet that includes consuming a high amount of unhealthy and refined grains can be considered similar to consuming a diet containing a lot of unhealthy sugars and oils.”

But there are instances where it can be beneficial.

For those experiencing heartburn, nausea and vomiting, or people recovering from medical procedures that affect the digestive system, a low fiber diet is beneficial, and white rice is often recommended in these cases, as it’s low in fiber, bland and easy to digest, says Healthline. It adds that women going through pregnancy may also benefit from the extra folate found in enriched white rice.

News24 also explained that although too much white rice may lead to weight gain (because of its fast-digesting carbohydrates), it makes a great post-workout meal as the fast-digesting carbs will be absorbed by your muscles to replace the energy you lose while exercising.

Sweet talk: What about sugar?

As research is continually being done on the health effects of the foods we eat, we’re hearing more and more about how unhealthy sugar is. Figures indicate that the global consumption of sugar was just over 171 million metric tons in 2019-2020, and this is projected to increase to nearly 179 million metric tons by 2023.

Research shows when you cut back on added sugar – the stuff manufacturers add to processed and prepackaged foods – you will have much better overall health, News24 previously noted. On the contrary, a diet high in added sugar is linked to an increased risk of certain health conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, to name a few.

And, contrary to common belief, brown and white sugar are not much different when it comes to their nutritional value.

“When looking at white vs. brown sugar, if you want to bring it down to nutrients, brown sugar, being less refined, does contain a few more micronutrients when compared with white [sugar],” Brien said.

“However, they both still have a high GI and are not very nutrient-dense. So if you really wanted to nit-pick, then yes, brown sugar is better than white sugar, however, neither of them are recommended for a healthy balanced diet.”

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The same goes for muscovado sugar, which has a rich brown color, high moisture content and toffee-like taste.

“That sugar is just less processed, so … it contains more nutrients, but is still not a good source of nutrients and is still sugar,” says Brien.

In fact, added sugar should always be limited or avoided as far as possible, she adds.

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