Once upon a time you may have wandered down the grocery aisle and picked up a bag of rice without a second thought. But lately the sheer variety of types can be overwhelming. And we’re not just talking brown versus white. Your average store might offer black, brown, red, white and about a dozen permutations of each.
We called on McKel Hill, MS, RD, author of Nutrition Stripped, and founder of the NS Society — a guide to master meal planning — to help us decode the best rice for health (and flavor!).
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4 Healthy Rice Varieties to Start Cooking Today
1. Forbidden Rice
Also known as black or purple rice, forbidden rice originates from Japan and gets its color from the same antioxidant that gives blueberries, acai and eggplant their dark hues. According to Hill, it‘s, “slightly sweet and nutrient-dense from antioxidants and has more fiber and protein than other rice varieties.” Indeed, researchers have found that the forbidden kind has more antioxidants than brown. The black variety’s antioxidants can help reduce arterial plaque buildup and lower cholesterol, says Hill. Although it’s called “forbidden,” it is popularly used in desserts because of its sweet, nutty flavor, but you can easily swap it in a savory dish, too.
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2. Red Rice
Similar to the forbidden kind, its red cousin gets its hue from the same antioxidants and has 10 times the antioxidants of brown. Sometimes called Bhutanese red rice, this crimson variety is also rich in minerals, like potassium and magnesium, and cooks quickly (just 20 minutes, compared to 35-plus for brown). Red rice has a rich flavor, so it pairs well with other foods that can hold their own.
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3. Brown Rice
While forbidden and red refer to specific types of the grain, brown rice is a broad label for varieties that are unhulled. Every kind of white rice you can think of — from jasmine to short-grain — is brown first before its outer hull is removed. The bran — or outside layer — of rice contains most of its vitamins and minerals and some of its fiber. Removing the bran changes the nutrient profile. Some research has suggested that whole-grain varieties can lead to healthier blood sugar levels.
But contrary to popular belief, white rice isn’t significantly more carb-rich and nutrient-poor than the brown kind. The unhulled version just has more healthy fats and minerals than white. It also has a nuttier flavor and chewier texture.
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4. White Rice
White rice are divided into two groups: all-purpose and specialty. The all-purpose kind, like long grain or quick cook, are interchangeable in any dish. Specialty rice, on the other hand, are best suited for ethnic cuisines, according to the Rice Association. It’s also is often grown, cooked and eaten in the same location (sustainability for the win). “My favorites based on their flavor and texture are jasmine and basmati,” Hill says. “They have a beautiful texture and are light and fluffy with a subtle flavor.”
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Here are a few specialty ones to know:
- Basmati: Used in Indian and Pakastani cuisine, basmati has a slightly nutty flavor and very long grains.
- Jasmine: Aromatic like basmati, jasmine is the choice in Thai cooking.
- Sticky rice: Usually called Japanese or sushi rice, this glutinous sticky variety is used for sushi and other Asian dishes.
- Bomba or paella: A staple in Spanish cuisine, it absorbs a lot of water without getting sticky. Its absorption of cooking broth helps give paella its flavor and color.
- Arborio: Used to make Italian risotto (carnaroli is another popular choice), this rice gives risotto its creamy texture.
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Good new about the white variety: “Your life and nutrition should offer flexibility and balance, just as much as it contains highly nutrient-dense foods,” says Hill. “My rule of thumb or recommendation is to enjoy any variety with protein, healthy fats and plenty of vegetables to help stabilize your blood sugars throughout the day.”
If you’re cooking an ethnic dish that calls for a specific type of white rice, go for it! But if you want to up your nutrient intake, you can always explore dishes that use black or red, or swap brown for white.