SINGAPORE, June 4 — White rice is a common staple on most dinner tables here. However, the starchy grain has gained a bad reputation ever since local health authorities singled it out last year as one of the top concerns in the nation’s battle against diabetes.
Diabetes risk rises 11 per cent for every daily serving of white rice, according to a meta-analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health published in the British Medical Journal
. Replacing it with wholegrain options (like brown or red rice) may cut diabetes risk, and Singapore’s Health Promotion Board (HPB) recommends consuming wholegrains instead of refined grains wherever possible.
But nutrition experts say when it comes to diabetes and weight management, the answer is not always so clear-cut.
White is bad, brown is good?
While Asians are genetically more predisposed to Type 2 diabetes than Caucasians, principal dietitian at Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre Bibi Chia pointed out that in the past, obesity and diabetes were not public health issues although previous generations probably consumed more white rice than most people do today.
“We can’t just blame rice. It’s also about what you’re eating the entire day — how much fat, excessive sugar, processed food, deep-fried food — as well as the lower amount of physical activity people are doing these days. Rising obesity rates mean that more people are also developing insulin resistance,” said Chia at the media launch of Kinmemai Better White and Better Brown rice earlier this month.
The Japanese-crafted healthier rice products, processed using a gentler rice-buffing technique that retains more fibre and nutrients, will be available in Singapore next month, offering more options for healthier rice.
The main reason white rice gets a bad rap is due to its high glycaemic index (GI), which is a measure of how rapidly a starchy food affects blood sugar after it is digested.
A value of 55 or less is considered a low GI rating, while 70 or above is considered high, said Dr Iain Brownlee, director of operations for food and human nutrition at Newcastle University (Singapore).
High GI foods cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, which over time, could raise Type 2 diabetes risk. Some preliminary research has also linked high GI diets to other conditions like colorectal cancer and age-related macular degeneration.
For diabetics, prolonged high blood sugar levels can also lead to life-threatening complications as their bodies are unable to effectively manage them, said Dr Brownlee.
Nutrition-wise, white rice also pales in comparison to wholegrain varieties as its hull, bran and germ, the outer part which contains most of the fibre, B-vitamins and other nutrients, are removed.
The polishing process leaves only the endosperm, which contains mainly starch and some protein.
On the other hand, wholegrain rice like brown rice, which retains its germ and bran, has a lower GI and almost five times the fibre of white rice. This keeps a person fuller and blood sugar levels stable over a longer period, making it a recommended choice from the perspective of weight and diabetes management, said Riddhi Naidu, a clinical dietitian at HealthQuay Medical.
Processing, cooking methods, and portion sizes matter too
However, Dr Brownlee said it is not always possible to accurately predict the GI of different types of rice as many factors can affect its digestibility.
While wholegrain varieties like brown rice will provide a wider range of nutrients, some may not necessarily be lower in GI than white rice.
For one, the processing methods and conditions in which the rice is grown can impact the GI of rice varieties, he added.
Other factors such as cooking methods and how the rice is eaten can also affect its GI value, said Naidu.
For example, a bowl of rice porridge has a higher GI than plain rice as the longer cooking time breaks down the cellular structure, making it easier to digest and raises blood sugar levels.
Chia added while replacing a portion of white rice with brown rice lowers its GI, the common habit of upsizing one’s rice portion can raise the GI even when consuming wholegrains.
The HPB recommends that wholegrains like brown rice form at most a quarter of a plate at every meal.
“A lot of hawker fare don’t come with adequate vegetables. When you have just two slices of cucumber with your chicken rice, you’ll have to eat more chicken and rice to feel full,” said Chia.
“Another common mistake is to eat rice with a lot of gravy, which increases the carbohydrate, calorie, salt and fat content of the meal.”
Low GI may not always be healthier
The experts stressed that it is also important to note that the food’s GI value does not indicate its nutritional value.
Take rice fried in a copious amount of oil. When combined with carbohydrates, fat tends to lower the GI of the food as it slows down digestion, but it does not mean the fried item is a healthier option, said Naidu.
Besides eating right, practising portion control is crucial in managing blood glucose levels and weight.
“Having low GI rice does not mean you can have more of it. If you dislike brown rice, you may choose to have parboiled or basmati rice, which are lower in GI than conventional white rice varieties,” said Naidu.
Finally, it is also important to get moving for at least 15 minutes after every meal to manage blood sugar levels, added Chia.
Know your rice
The demand for healthier rice options has risen in recent years. NTUC FairPrice’s director of grocery products Victor Chai said this year, the chain has seen a 25 per cent growth in demand for healthier rice products such as unpolished brown rice, red rice, mixed rice and organic rice compared to the same period last year.
It currently offers about 30 different rice products considered to be healthier.
Riddhi Naidu, clinical dietitian at HealthQuay Medical, gives the low-down on the nutritional content and glycaemic index (GI) value of the different rice varieties.
The hull, bran and germ are removed, hence, it is lower in nutritional value and is easier to digest. But not all white rice has a high GI. For instance, long-grain varieties like basmati have a lower GI (under 70) than short grain options (above 70).
The germ and bran, an outer shell that is full of fibre, B-vitamins and other minerals, are retained. It contains almost five times the fibre of white rice and takes longer to digest, keeping one’s blood sugar levels stable over a longer period.
Contains a variety of anthocyanins that gives its bran a red or maroon colour. It has a similar amount of fibre as brown rice, but six times the amount of zinc.
Also called converted rice, this type of rice has a lower GI (40) and a firmer and less sticky texture than regular white rice. It is also more nutritious because its processing method — pressure-steamed and dried — forces the nutrients and vitamins (fibre, B-vitamins and minerals) from the husk into the starch granule.
Its black-coloured bran layer comes from a unique anthocyanin combination, which causes the rice to turn a deep purple colour when cooked. It contains about three times the fibre of brown rice.
Not a true rice, but comes from a wild North American grain-producing grass. Compared to brown rice, it contains a similar amount of fibre but twice the amount of zinc and eight times the amount of Vitamin E. It requires the most water, soaking and cooking time among other rice types.
GI of rice varieties:
High (70-100): white rice, sticky (glutinous), puffed rice
Medium (56-69): brown rice, basmati rice
Low: parboiled (converted) rice (around 40) — TODAY