Why Billions Eat Unhealthy Rice and Shouldn’t

Filipinos have been described as among the most polite and hospitable people on earth. And, in our numerous sojourns to this country over three decades, we can count on one hand the number of disagreements we have had. Then, on our last visit in 2010, we learned from organic farmers why the country would be better off with a large-scale shift from polished white rice to less processed brown rice. When we mentioned what we had learned from these organic farmers to a number of other Filipinos, the disagreements flew.

First, let us explain the case for “less processed” brown rice. Typically, after farmers harvest their rice, it goes to a mill. There, it is cleaned and the husks are taken off the grains. At this point, it is referred to as “brown rice,” and it is full of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and protein. Rice at this stage is quite healthy to eat.

However, most people now prefer to eat “white rice,” which is what comes out of the process of milling and polishing the rice. Once the husk has been taken off, there remain several very thin layers or coats of nutritious bran, which get removed during polishing to produce the beautiful, shiny, white rice that billions of people eat daily across Asia.

Health problems come because of the polishing. Polishing rice into the sparkling white form that most people prefer has three major negative impacts on health.

The first is, polishing removes most of the vitamins and minerals that are vital to health. In the World War II prison camp in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, (where John’s grandfather was interned), American prisoners suffered from beriberi until they convinced the Japanese prison guards to let them cook the bran shavings that came off the polished rice; then the beriberi went away. Why? Rice bran contains vitamin B and thiamine, which are key to preventing beriberi.

The second relates to diabetes, which is threatening to reach epidemic proportions in the Philippines over the next couple of decades. The layers removed during the polishing of rice contain nutrients that guard against diabetes. Polished rice further contributes to diabetes risk because it causes blood-sugar levels to rise more rapidly than brown rice does. According to the New York Times, a 2010 Harvard study showed that people who consume white rice at least five times a week “are almost 20 percent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who eat it less than once a month.” Indeed, across the Philippines, we found people shifting to brown rice at their doctors’ suggestion because of concerns about diabetes.

Finally, polishing rice also reduces its protein content, which can mean the difference between being well-nourished or malnourished.

The bottom line on all three of these health fronts is the same: the more polished the rice, the less healthy it is.

Here is the bold, unadulterated fact: the mainstay of most Filipinos’ diets is polished white rice, where milling and polishing have eliminated most of the nutrients.

Filipinos aren’t alone; hundreds of millions of Chinese, Thais, Japanese, Americans and others have also shifted from healthier unpolished rice to polished white rice over the past century as mechanized rice milling spread. Their health too has suffered. We in the United States do an equally bad job of processing the best nutrients out of our number one cereal, wheat, so we are equally guilty.

When we raised these issues with non-farmer friends across the Philippines, most were interested but not convinced enough to shift to brown rice. “Our children find white rice easier to digest,” several told us. Or, “white rice tastes better.” Or, “it is hard to find unpolished brown rice.” Some did point out accurately that it takes longer to cook brown rice, which requires more fuel. And, a few mentioned the reality that brown rice sitting in a sack in your kitchen invites more insects, which are attracted to the same nutrients that make brown rice so healthy.

We dug back into the history books and found that 150 years ago, people across Asia ate unpolished rice in great quantities. When Westerners brought rice mills to the Philippines a century ago, Filipinos found the taste of the new white rice strange, and it took a while to get used to it. Traders who exported rice demanded that it be shipped as polished white rice, which further spread its consumption. And, then, over the decades, the dominant culture defined brown rice as “dirty” and fit only for the poor, while white rice was seen as sophisticated and modern. The consumption of white polished rice spread, even as it denied people and their children vital nutrients.

A shift to unpolished rice would enhance health across the board. And because each grain contains up to 10 percent more calories than polished grains, people need less of it to fill their stomachs. Indeed, by our calculations, with a switch to brown rice, the Philippines can eliminate rice imports, which now account for roughly one tenth of consumption.

So, how about a big campaign to shift consumption back to “brown rice”? Most organic farmers we met already eat rice that is not polished or has only been polished once. People with diabetes are making the switch. Rep. Manny Pacquiao, how about taping some advertisements promoting the health benefits of brown rice? How about restaurant chains shifting from offering unlimited white rice to serving brown rice? How about putting brown rice in the government’s food-for-school program?

The first step is to broaden the conversation.

Robin Broad is a professor at the American University and John Cavanagh co-chairs the New Economy Working Group at the Institute for Policy Studies.