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Brown rice is better

/ 05:06 AM September 04, 2018

One of our favorite restaurants in Los Baños allows customers ordering “plain rice” to opt for brown rather than white rice. There ought to be many more like them.

I’ve written before of why Filipinos stand to achieve a win-win with brown rice. At this time of surging rice prices traced to distortions caused by inordinate government control over rice trade, it’s well worth reminding ourselves why consuming more brown rice can be a solution to our country’s perennial rice woes.

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The brown rice I speak of is not of a different rice variety whose grains are naturally red, brown or even black—the kind we find only in specialty stores or shelves, fetching a much higher price than the ordinary rice we know. I refer simply to unpolished rice, or any rice variety that has not gone through the last stage of milling that removes the coating of bran, leaving only the white grain.

“Once upon a time, unpolished rice was the only rice that Filipinos knew, back when pounding and winnowing were the only means our ancestors had for milling rice,” asserts professor Ted Mendoza, crop scientist at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.

“People across Asia ate unpolished rice in great quantities a century and a half ago,” add development scholars Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. It was after Westerners introduced rice mills over a century ago that white rice consumption dominated brown rice, they wrote. The latter became associated with poverty, even considered inferior and “dirty,” while white rice was seen as modern and sophisticated.

But the “modern” and “sophisticated” form of the food also made it unhealthy. Polishing takes away most of the healthy nutrients found in rice, including protein and vitamin B1 or thiamine, the lack of which causes problems with our cardiovascular and nervous systems. Polishing also removes nutrients that guard against diabetes, and raises blood sugar levels more rapidly than brown rice does, further raising diabetes risk.

Other documented advantages of brown rice include reduced risk of gallstones; lower buildup of arterial plaque that causes heart disease; high fiber content that helps prevent colon cancer and promotes weight loss; presence of calcium, potassium, selenium, manganese, magnesium and silica, an important mineral for bone health and slowing the aging process… the list goes on. In short, the more polished rice is, the less healthy it becomes.

But there’s more. The milling of brown rice removes only around 28 percent of the husk, 10 percent less than with white rice. Thus, we can get up to 10 percent more rice volume from the same amount of palay if milled as brown rather than white rice. Brown rice is also more filling, as whole grains generally contain more nutrients per calorie than polished and refined grains.

Mendoza estimates that Filipinos would eat up to 20-40 percent less rice if consumed as brown rice, or only about 84 kilos per capita, versus the current level of around 110 kilos. Even if only half of Filipinos opt for brown rice, he figures that we wouldn’t have to import rice at all.

So why don’t we eat more brown rice? Common answers are “white rice tastes better” or “our children find white rice easier to digest.” Some note that brown rice takes longer to cook, thus needing more fuel. Brown rice also invites more insects, attracted to the same nutrients that make it so much healthier for humans. But these concerns can be addressed with presoaking before cooking, and better storage and packaging, among others.

A valid concern is that brown rice is harder to find, and once found, turns out to be more expensive than white rice. But that is simply because rice mills don’t make enough of it, even if it’s cheaper to produce. More demand would change that.

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The Asia Rice Foundation favors the term “whole grain rice,” to give brown rice the same appeal to the health-conscious as whole grain cereal products in general. Professor Mendoza is confident that, with wider consumption of unpolished rice, the millers would respond appropriately, and eventually make healthier brown rice both widely accessible and affordable. But we Filipino consumers need to make the first—and wise—step.

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