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Rice: It’s more than just a side dish

More than half of the world depends on rice as a food staple. In Burma, the average person eats an unbelievable 500 lbs of rice a year, or 1.25 lbs a day! In North America, the amount consumed is sign...

More than half of the world depends on rice as a food staple. In Burma, the average person eats an unbelievable 500 lbs of rice a year, or 1.25 lbs a day! In North America, the amount consumed is significantly lower, about 25 lbs per year per person, and about four pounds of that amount goes towards brewing beer.

However, North Americans are now eating twice as much rice as 10 years ago. Why? We are becoming more aware of its health benefits. Rice is high in complex carbohydrates, which means it is digested slowly, allowing the body to utilize the energy released over a longer period, making it nutritionally efficient.

Rice contains almost no fat, is cholesterol-free, and low in sodium (unless you add salt to the cooking water). Rice is gluten-free and easily digested, making it a good choice for infants and people with wheat allergies or digestion problems

As well, rice contains all eight essential amino acids, making it a fair source of protein. Since it is fairly low in the amino acid lysine, which is found in beans, the classic combination of the complementary proteins in rice and beans creates a particularly healthful dish.

Although there are around 40,000 varieties of rice, let’s just consider these two basic categories: white and brown. Generally both white and brown rice are considered a good source of vitamins and minerals. Their calorie count is also very similar. A half-cup of cooked white rice provides 82 calories and a half-cup of brown rice provides 89. So, besides the colour, what is the difference between them?

White rice is what remains of a whole grain of rice after the bran layer is removed during milling. The process of converting brown rice to white rice destroys most of the vitamins B3, B1, and B6 naturally found in rice, and half of the manganese, phosphorus, and iron, as well as all the dietary fiber and essential fatty acids. Ninety per cent of this rice, if grown in North America, is later enriched with many of these same nutrients, including: thiamine, niacin and iron and sometimes with riboflavin, Vitamin D and calcium. Because of the enrichment process, white rice has more added iron and thiamine than brown rice.

However, I recommend brown rice. All that’s been removed from the whole gain of brown rice is the outside hull, leaving the inside nutrients in tact. Brown rice has five times more Vitamin E and three times more magnesium than white. As well, brown rice has twice as much fiber. Even so, brown rice is still not considered to be an especially high fiber source. Yet, rice bran on its own is an excellent source of fiber.

Eating brown rice as a consistent part of your diet has been shown to improve health in the following ways: It can reduce constipation because of its fiber; reduce asthma symptoms because of its anti-inflammatory compounds; reduce the risk of developing diabetes because its magnesium balances glucose and insulin secretion; reduce the risk of heart attack because its oil minimizes cholesterol; help control weight gain and avoid colon cancer because of its fiber; increase energy levels because of its compound carbohydrate composition; help maintain a healthy blood pressure because its magnesium maintains relaxed blood vessels; and help prevent gall stones because it ensures a healthy amount of secreted bile.

Interestingly, if you soak brown rice for two hours before cooking it, the rice becomes more nutritious because the water stimulates germination which increases the protein content of the grain. Soaking also makes rice taste sweeter.

Now, if you’ve decided to switch to brown rice, the transition should be quite easy with these simple adjustments. Because it is less refined than white, brown rice takes about twice as long to cook. It also takes more liquid. Add at least three-quarters of a cup more to your usual liquid measurement. Making these adjustments to your rice recipes should allow you to use the healthier brown rice in your favourite dishes. Everything from rice pudding to Spanish rice can be made just as well with brown rice.

I recently bought a rice cooker and have found it ideal for creating perfect rice every time. Using the cooker, I can make the rice in just water, or be creative by adding other ingredients such as: soup powders; soy sauce; onion; celery; other vegetables and/or spices. My cooker allows me to make rice and keep it fresh and warm for up to 18 hours. Really. If you’re serious about adding brown rice to your diet, consider a decent rice cooker as a good investment.

Whether at home or on the road, when it comes to rice – don’t be afraid to be called a browner.

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail

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