Gain from the grain

Choosing the rice that is best for your nutritional needs depends a lot on the qualities of the grain

rice fieldThere are many varieties of rice and each enjoys not just a unique name, but also a distinct taste, texture and nutritive value.

A key aspect, which differentiates one rice variety from another, is the type and amount of starch present in it.

Starch, a complex carbohydrate is basically of two types —amylase and amylopectin. It is the proportion of this ingredient in any rice that determines its characteristic flavour, culinary usage, and glycaemic index [the measure of a food's ability to increase blood glucose levels on consumption].

Size

Depending on the size of the grain, rice can be broadly classified into three categories.

Short grain: This rice is small and round in shape. On cooking, it tends to swell up and become sticky. The amount of amylopectin in short grain rice is higher than other varieties, which renders it the distinctive sticky or gluey texture.

This rice is best suited for preparing rice-based desserts such as rice pudding and rice dumplings. Though quite high in glycaemic index, short grain rice is also rich in B complex vitamins and potassium.

Medium grain: Bigger in size than short grain rice, medium grain rice also tends to stick together when moist and is preferred in Italian cuisine, especially for risottos and paella. The cooked rice becomes soft and more flavourful as it takes on the flavours of the dish.

The amylopectin content of this rice is high, but not higher than the short grain rice. Arborio and Calrose rice are few varieties of medium grain rice. Medium grain rice is favoured for its texture that is firm outside and creamy inside.

Long grain: This rice is the longest in size and remains firm and fluffy on cooking. Best suited for Indian cuisine, this rice retains its size and aroma. Compared to the other two varieties, it is also less sticky.

rice in a bowlThe amylase content of this rice is higher than its amylopectin content [the reason for its low glycaemic index]. Jasmine or Thai rice, Indian basmati rice and Wehani brown rice are the common long grain rice varieties available. This rice is preferred by many for its low gluten content, fragrance and appealing appearance.

Colour

Every grain of rice typically comprises three layers—the hull, bran and germ. When only the hull or the outermost layer of the grain is removed by milling, it appears brown in colour.

As the degree of processing is minimal, the bran, the germ, and hence the nutritive value of the grain, remains intact. Which means the magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, B vitamins and dietary fibre, is least damaged—the reason why whole brown rice is considered to be the healthiest.

On further processing rice, the bran and germ layers get removed to give us 'unpolished white rice'. Though this rice is nutritionally poorer than brown rice, it retains many of its micronutrients and essential fatty acids. The further polishing of this unpolished white rice removes the underlying aleurone layer and robs it of all nutrients.

The resulting 'polished white rice' has an appealing colour and texture, is quicker to cook, and boasts of a longer shelf life. However, nutritionally, it is simply a refined starch without much fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

The smart choice

Parboiled rice: A convenient and nutritionally-sound variety of rice, which finds use in many cuisines, is parboiled rice. This rice, along with its husk, is partially steamed, dried and manually milled.

Parboiled rice is close to brown rice in its nutrient content, as the process of heating allows the B vitamins and other nutrients to get absorbed into the rice grain. The parboiling method also imparts a unique reddish tinge and delectable nutty flavour to the rice.

Parboiled rice is often preferred over brown and white rice, as it cooks faster and is nutritionally better than both. This rice is low in fat and starch and also easily digestible.

How to pick nice rice

  • When preparing risottos or pudding, use short grain or sticky rice and, for sushi, use medium-grained rice.
  • Aromatic Indian or Thai rice varieties go well with meat and chicken; use them for Indian, Chinese or Thai cuisines.
  • Soak rice [especially, brown rice] in water to minimise the cooking time. Also, avoid throwing away this water. Instead, cook the rice using it.
  • Use parboiled rice and enriched organic rice over brown rice if you are short of time as it cooks faster.
  • Bring home a few variants of rice to derive the health benefits of all and also to enjoy the flexibility of choosing as per cuisines and recipes. Brown rice or parboiled rice could be used for daily cooking and long grain white rice may be reserved for biryani or pulao.

Nice rice

  • Rice products such as rice flakes, rice flour noodles, puffed rice and flattened rice make for excellent and healthy snacking choices.
  • Rice is typically devoid of gluten and can therefore be consumed by people with gluten sensitivity and allergy.
  • When unpolished rice is paired with lentils and vegetables, it becomes an economical, healthy and balanced meal.

Difference between brown rice and white rice

Brown rice is less processed and hence is healthier [and costlier] than white rice. It adds colour and aroma to a preparation.

However, it takes longer to cook and is difficult to digest. It is high in fatty acids, because of which it may get rancid soon and cannot be stored for long, without refrigeration.

White rice is heavily processed and hence has limited nutritive value, making it cheaper than the brown rice. However, it cooks faster and is easily digested.

It can also be stored for months together, if kept in an air-tight container at room temperature. Being white in colour, it takes on the colour and flavour of the herbs and sauces added.

This was first published in the May 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Panchali Moitra
Panchali Moitra holds a Masters in Food and Nutrition from Delhi University. She is a qualified nutritionist with a decade old experience of active clinical practice in Mumbai and specialises in providing dietary advice for lifestyle disorders like diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

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