Win-win with brown rice

“Once upon a time, unpolished rice—that is, brown rice—was the only rice that Filipinos knew, back when pounding and winnowing were the only means our ancestors had for milling rice,” writes Prof. 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 Robin Broad and John Cavanagh of American University and Institute of Policy Studies, respectively. “When Westerners brought rice mills to the country a century ago, Filipinos found the taste of the new white rice strange, and it took a while [for them] to get used to it.”

The milling machines may have made life somewhat easier, but they also altered the end product altogether, removing the bran from the rice and turning it white. Through time, white rice consumption dominated brown rice, and the latter became associated with poverty, even considered an inferior, “dirty” product. White rice, on the other hand, was considered modern and sophisticated.

But the “modern” and “sophisticated” form of the food also made it unhealthy. Broad and Cavanagh argue that polishing rice into the sparkling white form that most people now prefer has caused major adverse health impacts. First, polishing removes most of the healthy vitamins and minerals found in rice. These include vitamin B and thiamine, the lack of which causes beriberi, a disease that afflicted those incarcerated by Japanese forces in World War II. Beriberi supposedly disappeared when guards let the prisoners cook the bran shavings that came off the polished rice they were fed with. White rice also raises the risk of diabetes, fast rising in the Philippines and elsewhere, as polishing removes nutrients that guard against the disease. Moreover, polished rice causes blood-sugar levels to rise more rapidly than brown rice does, further contributing to diabetes risk.

Polishing rice likewise reduces its protein content. Still other documented advantages of brown rice include reduced risk of gallstones; lower creation of arterial plaque buildup, hence reducing chances of developing heart disease and high cholesterol; high fiber content, thereby helping prevent colon cancer and promoting 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 the rice, the less healthy it is. Apart from type 2 diabetes, higher risks of other illnesses such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, etc. are associated with eating well-milled rice. The Asia Rice Foundation favors the term “whole grain rice” over brown rice, which should hold as much appeal to health buffs as whole grain cereal products do in general.

There is another important dimension to the merits of brown rice: It may actually hold the key to our country’s attaining self-sufficiency in rice, a goal that Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala seeks to achieve by next year. In the milling of brown rice, only around 28 percent of the husk is removed, unlike white rice that entails removal of 38 percent of the husk. That is, up to 10 percent additional rice volume can be achieved (higher “milling recovery”) from the same amount of palay if milled as brown rather than white rice.  Brown rice is also more filling. Since whole grains contain more nutrients per calorie than polished and refined grains, people need less of it to fill their stomachs—one reason whole grain products are the choice of dieters. Mendoza believes that consuming brown rice would lead people to eat less rice in general— by his estimate, up to 20-40 percent less. He calculates that with brown rice, Filipinos will only consume an average of 84 kilograms per capita, as against the current level of around 110 kilos. With that, he figures that we can forego rice imports altogether with just 50 percent of Filipinos opting for brown rice.

So why don’t we eat more unpolished or whole grain rice? As they asked around, Broad and Cavanagh found the most common answers to be: “White rice tastes better” or “Our children find white rice easier to digest.” Some point out that brown rice takes longer to cook, thus requiring more fuel. Still others mention that brown rice tends to invite more insects, which are attracted to the same nutrients that make it so much healthier for humans. A valid concern is that it is (now) harder to find unpolished brown rice, and contrary to its image as “poor man’s rice,” it is actually more expensive than white rice.

None of these drawbacks is insurmountable.  The taste can be addressed by the proper choice of rice variety, or mixing with well-milled rice. Cooking duration, which is associated with water absorption, can be shortened by soaking brown rice for half an hour before cooking. Proper storage will address insect problems. Scarcity and high price are not because brown rice is harder or costlier to produce; on the contrary, it entails less milling, hence less energy cost. It is the historical decline in consumption explained above that has turned it into a niche market, with its associated higher marketing costs.
Mendoza is confident that with wider consumption of unpolished rice, the supply side will respond appropriately and eventually make healthier brown rice both widely accessible and affordable. But we Filipino consumers need to make the initial step.

And the step is well worth it. We will not only be helping ourselves, toward better health; we will also be helping the country, toward better food security.