Brown Rice

Brown Rice

Rice provides the perfect example of how there can be no generalizations about a single food. There are over 120,000 known varieties of rice (International Rice Research Institute) (which are diminishing rapidly as a result of industrialized agriculture) and a vast array of ways to cultivate, treat, preserve, cook, or otherwise process rice (which are increasing just as rapidly through various artificial means, including cross-breeding, genetic engineering, expedient harvesting technologies, and preservatives or additives for packaging and storing).  The ancient texts of Ayurveda provide a detailed analysis of the effects of both the variety and the processing of rice on our individual mind/body constitutions. To simply take a gander at this exhaustive analysis makes you realize the intricacies of the “prana” or life force in our food; and in my eyes provides an inspiration to pay special attention to how the food we eat is treated and/or processed in all dimensions – from selecting the seed and the company to buy it from, to cooking and even eating it.

A Brief History

Rice is native to tropical India, northern Indochina, and southern China, and is believed to have been domesticated as early as 6000 – 5000 BCE (though some make earlier claims).1  It wasn’t until the 17th century that Spanish and Portuguese brought rice to Europe. It later arrived in America where it proliferated on the rice plantations in the south through the help of slave labor.2  Numerous varieties of rice are currently grown in the United States throughout the southern states, as well as in California, Illinois and Missouri.  [note: “Wild rice” (Zizania palustris L.) which grows in the midwestern states and Canada is a completely different species, but has similar nutritional benefits.3 ].  In any case, rice has spread throughout the globe and has become the staple food for about half the world’s populations.

Health Benefits

It is no wonder that rice has found its place near the top of the world’s food list (second to wheat).  Its inherent qualities (before artificial processing) are highly nutritious. In general, rice is high in complex carbohydrates, is a fair source of protein having all eight amino acids. contains almost no fat, is low in sodium and is cholesterol free (some believe some varieties have the effect of lowering cholesterol).  It is a good source of vitamins and minerals such as thiamine, niacin, iron, riboflavin, vitamin D, vitamin E, calcium, and fiber.  Brown rice is considered much more nutritious than even enriched white rice, with as much as twice the fiber, five times the vitamin E, and three times the magnesium.4  The traditional varieties such as basmati have a low glycemic index, and are believed to be useful in diabetes and weight-reducing diets.5

Types of Rice – Long & Short, White & Brown

Rice can generally be divided into two grain types: Indica rices – long firm grains high in amylose starch which usually grow in lowland tropical and subtropical areas and Japonica rices – short, medium-grain soft or clumpy “sticky” rices  lower in starches that grow in upland tropical and temperate climates.6)  The latter type is often referred to as “glutinous” rice, despite rice is a gluten free food.7 There are also references to “aromatic” rices, which are varieties that have a distinct aroma or flavor – a popular example is the Indica basmati rice8 (one form of which is grown in the U.S. and “owned” by RiceTec Inc. through its “Texmati” patent.9) )

On a macro scale, the processing of rice can also be divided in two: white rice and brown rice. While all edible rice is processed to have the hull removed, “white rice” is further milled to remove the outer bran and germ10 (i.e. most of the nutrients).  “Brown rice” is simply any variety of rice that has the fortune not to go through this process.

Effects of Processing & Preparing Rice -An Ayurvedic Perspective

The full nutritive qualities of several ancient varieties of rice are explained in detail in this article Rice – A Nutraceutical written by scientists Uma Ahuja et. al.11) Anyone interested in the concepts of food as medicine, as well as the effects of processing and preparation on food should read this article in full.

As it explains, the Ayurvedic treatise the Charaka Samhita (c. 700 B.C.) praised the medicinal value of certain varieties of rice – to balance or pacify all the mind/body constitutions (vata, pitta and kapha), to strengthen, revitalize and energize the body, regulate blood pressure, and to prevent skin diseases and premature aging.  But not all rice is the same: “The vaids (traditional doctors) of yore possessed profound knowledge of the different  effects of rices, and were very particular in their prescription.”  Indeed, Ayurvedic treatises document the properties of different varieties of rice, grown in different seasons, in different growing areas, soil types (marshy or dry soils), land preparation (plowed or unplowed land), planting method (broadcast or transplanted), post harvest processing, and aging of rice (new or one/two-year old rice).  This article goes into all of this in sufficient detail to make your head spin.  However, the point here is not to lose ourselves in elaboration, but for us to realize and appreciate the fact that how we grow our food, the season in which we grow and harvest it, the health of our soil, and the effects of artificial production and processing all matter from a nutritive perspective – not to mention mind and spirit.

I will elaborate a bit on just two aspects – the aging of rice and the processing and preparation of rice.  First, I recall the Ayurvedic doctor under whom I studied in Mysore, India often referred to the benefits of “old rice” (one year maturity after harvest) versus new rice.  Indeed the Ayurvedic treatise document that new rice is harder on the body to digest, as it is believed to increase the secretions of the internal organs;  whereas old rice is “lighter” and two-year old rice is even more “excellent in quality”.12  My teacher explained that due to the onset of mass production or more efficient technologies for harvesting, processing (i.e. drying and milling) and distribution, we are eating newer and newer rice which is becoming harder and harder for us to digest.  [Note: This is not to say that we should be keeping our rice on our shelves longer, as it does have a shelf life and the natural oils will spoil over time.  It is thus important to store it in an airtight container and not to buy rice with evidence of moisture.  Some suggest that brown rice can remain in the refrigerator for up to six months and white rice for one year.13 ]  The point here is that we should consider the benefits of buying our rice from a local source, or a small organic farm whose processing is “slower” (i.e. drying rice in the sun) – and thus a more natural aging process.  With respect to the preparation of rice, the Ayurvedic texts explain that dry roasting (i.e. drying over artificial heat) certain varieties of rice can make them “heavy” to digest.14  In addition, there are references to the digestive benefits of soaking rice prior to cooking it.15  This is in line with macrobiotics, which advises that soaking grains for 1-2 hours prior to cooking them will help activate enzymes that will aid in digestion.

“Politics”

Rice also provides an example of the “politics” or social dimension of our food choices.  The spread, cultivation and development of rice to this day is not without social consequences. Two examples include the push for golden rice in India and the mass U.S. importation of rice to Haiti. Golden rice is genetically modified to produce beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. It’s a controversial issue, as many claim that golden rice will help reduce malnutrition rates in India; yet many claim this technology will do more harm than good with respect to food security as it takes more water to grow, will lead small farmers to lose their land, and for all to lose a vast array of more nutritious and sustainable ancient rice varieties.16 I happened to talk with some rural farmers in India about this situation and they have already seen the ill-consequences of the domination of corporate giants like Monsanto pushing genetically modified (GMO) seeds, and they fear that the advancement of angel rice will further lead to environmental and social consequences without much health benefit.  Another example is the U.S. rice imports to Haiti, which some say has pushed Haitian farmers off their farms and into the already over-crowded cities and slums and made the country more dependent upon the economic powers, not to mention more vulnerable in natural catastrophes as proven in the recent earthquake.17

Rice as Food for Awakening

In sum, rice provides us a lot of food for thought in our quest to explore foods that will benefit our “awakening” in body, mind and spirit.  From a physical perspective, rice has great nutritive value – particularly brown rice that is organically grown and processed.  In general, the shorter and sticky varieties are sweet in taste and can be aggravating to Kapha.  So kapha types are more suited to the longer varieties, including basmati rice which is low on the glycemic index. From a mental perspective, rice is considered a “sattvic” food when cooked in a natural way (i.e. not too oily or spicy) and eaten when freshly prepared. Finally, the “politics” of rice teach us to consider the environmental and social impacts of our food choices and food policies. We can all help by creating a demand for vast varieties of traditional, locally grown, organic, slowly and naturally processed, non-GMO, brown rice.

  1. Wikipedia – Rice []
  2. Wikipedia – Rice []
  3. Ervin A. Oelke, Wild Rice: Domestication of a Native North American Genus []
  4. International Rice Research Institute []
  5. The Glycemic Index []
  6. Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit: An Illustrated Encyclopedia – Biggs, Matthew (2009 []
  7. Celiac Sprue Association – Gluten Grains []
  8. Wikipedia – Rice []
  9. Charles Goldfinger, The story of the basmati rice patent battle, Science Business, UK (2007 []
  10. International Rice Research Institute , http://www.irri.org/about/faq.asp []
  11. Uma Ahuja et al., Rice – A Nutraceutical Asian Agri-History Vol. 12, No. 2, 2008 (93–108 []
  12. Rice – A Nutraceautical []
  13. Michael Murray, The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, 2005. []
  14. Rice – A Nutraceautical []
  15. Rice – A Nutraceautical []
  16. Dr. Vandana Shiva, The “Golden Rice” Hoax – When Public Relations replaces Science []
  17. Haiti: The Aid Masquerade by kerry at Green Fork Blog []

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