The history of rice cultivation stretches back hella far — even further back than most crops. Some research suggests that it was first domesticated as many as 10,000 years ago.
Though white rice boomed as a cash crop in the American South starting in the 1600s, it wasn’t really until the health food movement of the 1960s and 1970s that brown rice even registered on most Americans’ radars. In fact, it still hasn’t totally shed that hippie-dippy image, always the underdog to white rice in everything from sushi to jambalaya.
When it comes to white rice versus brown rice, the difference is kind of obvious, at least on the surface — but what are their other differences, and is brown rice actually healthier than white?
Brown rice’s healthful reputation can be traced to the fact that, well, it has more nutrients. (Yep, it’s pretty straightforward.)
Brown and white rice both start out from the same material: grains encased in a protective husk. After harvest, they both go through a milling process to reveal the brown rice beneath, which has an outer coating called the bran and a little opaque nugget known as the germ.
This bran is rich in fiber, while the germ is loaded with B vitamins and minerals like magnesium, vitamin E, and iron (as well as some fiber and quite a bit of protein).
That bran layer doesn’t just give brown rice fiber and its signature earthy taste, but also affects how it cooks. Because the fiber in bran acts as a sort of protective barrier, it makes it difficult for moisture to pass through and get absorbed by the grain. (That’s why you may find brown rice drier and harder than its white counterpart.)
The other potential downside to the bran layer? It contains phytic acid, which can prohibit the absorption of some nutrients. (Fortunately, soaking it overnight will help mitigate these effects.)
Then again, phytic acid could actually be beneficial for preventing kidney stones and creating a lower glycemic response — so it’s not necessarily a reason to kick brown rice to the curb.
And when you consider brown rice’s other benefits (like being linked to weight loss, reduced blood pressure, and lower markers of inflammation), you might be convinced this whole grain deserves a place on your plate.
One caveat, though: Brown rice does contain more arsenic than white — about 80 percent more, to be exact.
If you’re concerned about consuming harmful amounts of arsenic from brown rice, try varying your grain choices. (Might we suggest queuing up some quinoa or getting freaky with freekeh?) Also, cooking it with more water than usual can help. Using a 4-to-1 ratio of water-to-rice can remove about half the arsenic.
White rice is the rice that goes bran-less. It takes processing a step further and is “polished,” shedding its bran and germ to become a refined grain. This leaves only the starchy endosperm.
It may be a mild, chewy base for curries and stir-fries but it doesn’t offer as much nutrition as unrefined brown rice. That said, lots of food manufacturers enrich their white rice with nutrients like folate and iron, so check labels to know what you’re getting!
White rice not only contains fewer vitamins and minerals, but has a higher glycemic index (GI) score than brown rice, meaning it can raise blood sugar more quickly. However, a food’s GI score isn’t always the most reliable indicator of how it’ll impact blood sugar, according to some research.
If you have type 2 diabetes or are at risk for developing it, you may want to be careful about the amount of white rice you eat.
An older study from 2012 found that greater consumption of white rice was associated with a higher risk of developing this disease. You might also try pairing white rice with higher fiber foods, since a diet high in fiber is associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
Other research has found that eating more of the white stuff may be associated with metabolic syndrome — a cluster of symptoms that can include obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and larger weight circumference.
If you’re on a low carb diet, keep in mind that both white and brown rice are fairly high in carbs (hence the rise of cauliflower rice). But they make a great choice for folks with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity since they’re gluten-free.
As for cooking, white rice can be your go-to when you’re in a hurry. Stripped of the bran, the bare endosperm soaks up water easily, so it cooks faster and becomes more tender. Basic recipes for white rice usually only call for about 15 minutes of boiling, while brown takes around 50 minutes, despite using more or less the same method.
Go for it (once it’s cooked, of course)! Brown rice is chewier and nuttier than white rice but you can use it as the base of a salad, fried rice, casserole, or stir-fry — essentially, anywhere you’d use white rice. Leftover brown rice can be turned into tasty, nutritious rice pudding too.
Just note that if your recipe involves cooking the rice as part of a larger dish, the cooking time and liquid content won’t be the same from brown to white. Adjust recipes using your best judgment — or scope out our guides on how to cook both white and brown varieties.
Within the categories of brown rice and white rice, there are oodles of varieties. Jasmine rice, basmati rice, and sticky rice, for instance, all come in both brown and white versions, and there are other differences that distinguish them further, like the length of the grain.
In general, basic nutrition differences hold true between white and brown, no matter the variety. (As in, whole grain rice will offer more fiber and micronutrients than refined.)
That said, you may find cooking times and best practices vary. Follow package instructions for cooking any rice and you should be good to go for a pleasantly chewy, starchy side dish.
Whether you go for brown or white, you’re eating one of the oldest, most widely consumed grains enjoyed by humankind. Here are five recipes to celebrate that fact.
1. Rice pilaf
Pilaf gets extra flavor from being simmered in broth — and from being toasted in the pan before adding the liquid. If you don’t have a recipe like this in your back pocket already, this one’s an excellent starter. It’s a trusty all-purpose side dish that goes with just about everything.
2. Spanish rice
Whether it’s in burritos or alongside spicy favorites like chiles rellenos, a batch of Spanish rice is a no-fail way to round out a Mexican-inspired meal.
3. Brown rice and gai lan jook
Want a novel alternative to fried rice? By using brown rice and leafy Chinese broccoli, jook — a Chinese rice porridge — becomes a powerhouse of both flavor and nutrition.
Get our brown rice and gai lan jook recipe.
4. Brown rice veggie burger
Part of the beauty of brown rice is that, like some other whole grains, it’s hardy enough to be mixed into larger recipes without turning to mush. In these veggie burgers, it adds heft and substance. Veggies and spices also lend a hand to produce a patty that’s totally worth chowing down.
Get our brown rice veggie burger recipe.
5. The best rice pudding
Because white rice is pretty much all starch, it’s your best pick for rice pudding. As it releases that starch into the milk it’s simmered in, it gets increasingly creamy and thick, sticking to the back of your spoon just the way you want it to.