white rice, brown rice, white bread, brown bread
March 10, 2011 4:50 PM   Subscribe

Just how much worse is white rice and white bread as compared to brown rice and whole wheat bread?

I understand that brown rice and whole wheat bread have more nutritional value, but I'm wondering if white rice and white bread are really as bad as what seems to be implied. Is the difference merely less nutrients, or is there something negative to white rice and bread not present in brown rice and whole wheat bread?
posted by Hoopo to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
White rice is just brown rice with some nutritious bits missing. There is nothing inherently "negative" about either.
posted by halogen at 4:52 PM on March 10, 2011

That's right. Whole grains are better when you consider the nutrient-to-calorie ratio. With whole grains, you get more nutritional bang for your calorie buck. Nothing wrong with white - you're just eating calories that are closer to "empty," meaning that you don't get as much good stuff (vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.) per calorie.
posted by TrixieRamble at 4:59 PM on March 10, 2011

An absence of fiber and nutrients present in brown rice and whole wheat bread is all that is missing from white rice and white bread. There's a lot of info out there on benefits of whole grains.
posted by bearwife at 4:59 PM on March 10, 2011

Glycemic Index!

When the extra fiber is not stripped off, it slows the sugar spike into the blood.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 5:06 PM on March 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

Michael Pollan would say that the problem is that food is too complex for us to fully understand the implications of changing it. For example, fiber is good sure. But also, without it, white rice turns to sugar in your blood stream much faster. So it isn't simply about missing some magical ingredient; but also about the gestalt.
posted by ohheh at 5:07 PM on March 10, 2011

Best answer: "Worse"?

Both of the brown versions of these things contain more of the actual grain than the white versions, but calling the white ones "worse" may overstate matters, particularly where bread is concerned.

What's going on here is food processing. In the case of rice, the bran and germ is removed, then the kernel is usually bleached a bit. In the US, white rice is enriched with some vitamins and iron. It's not as good for you as the brown version, but it's something. White rice is generally more easily digestible, making the calories more accessible to your metabolism, so it tends to be more calorically dense.

But only a little. Either way you're still eating what amounts to 100% starch, and if you're eating a standard North American diet, you're getting plenty of vitamins from other food. The white/brown distinction only becomes a problem when you're eating mostly rice and little else. Certain poorer populations in Asia have run into nutritional problems when they switch from brown to white without adding anything else to their diet. But we're talking people who eat rice at every meal. Anyone posting to AskMe is very unlikely to do this.

White/brown bread is another story. Yes, whole wheat does what it says on the tin and white flour doesn't have the bran or germ in it. But a lot of brown bread in this country isn't actually all that much healthier, as the flour is still processed to within an inch of its life. Unless you're getting the 100% whole wheat stuff, most "whole wheat" products are simply "made with whole wheat," i.e. they threw a handful of whole grains in a vat full of refined flour. Whereas getting the more natural rice is pretty easy--just buy brown rice--getting all natural bread is a lot harder. Artisan bakeries are the most reliable option, and there are a couple of brands in most supermarkets that are 100% whole wheat, but you do have to look carefully or you'll wind up with bread that is cosmetically brown but nutritionally little different than the wonderbread in the next bag.

Then again, most bread sold in supermarkets is utter crap to begin with, and it tends to be loaded with sugar and salt. Take a look at your nutrition facts sometime. Very, very different than what you'll find at an artisan bakery, where if they're doing it right, the ingredients are whole grain flour, water, a little salt, and starter from the last batch.

Tl;dr version: the difference in white and brown rice is real, but not that big of a deal unless you're eating it almost exclusively. The difference between white and brown bread can also be real, but only if you're careful about getting bread which is actually 100% whole wheat and not just "brown".
posted by valkyryn at 5:09 PM on March 10, 2011 [17 favorites]

Whole grains tend to have slightly (but noticeably!) lower glycemic index values and insulin index values than more processed (white) grains . As far as I can tell, lower for those two items = unequivocally better according to current science.

Example GI chart. The highest glycemic load for a piece of sandwich bread is 12, the lowest (from a whole grain bread) is 7. Specialty breads come in at more extreme ends of the spectrum, with a white bagel coming in at 25 and pumpernickel bread coming in at 6.

For context, Coca Cola, pure sugar water, has a glycemic load of 15. So a sandwich made with one slice of "bad" bread is nearly equivalent to drinking a can of coke when it comes to your body's insulin response. A sandwich made with a slice of whole wheat bread is, in comparison, like half a Coke. So it's twice as good in terms of not giving you diabetes later in life.

Glycemic index and insulin index are two different things, but they have a strong correlation. Insulin index is probably the better indicator of the two.
posted by jsturgill at 5:12 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Getting whole wheat bread is not that hard! If it says "100% Whole Wheat", it's whole wheat. If it says "Wheat", it's just brown; if it says "Whole Grain" it probably has something chewy or crunchy in it.

But seriously, all you have to do is look for the words "100% Whole Wheat," at least in the US.
posted by mskyle at 5:17 PM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

dflemingecon: The whole point of food is nutrients; I don't understand how that's "merely."

I believe Hoopo was quite obviously using "merely" merely in the non-evaluative or descriptive sense [see what I did there?]

We can safely assume that he or she realizes that foods contain nutrients, as the content of the question gives no reason to think otherwise.
posted by astrochimp at 5:20 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

There is something negative to white bread which is that it has no flavor and is so soft that more of it gets stuck in your teeth than actually goes down your throat.

But that's just a matter of taste. Nutritionally the differences are there, but refined carbs aren't, like, poisonous or anything.
posted by Sara C. at 5:54 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bread is simply flour, yeast, and water. It may have a little salt, a little sugar, and a little egg, or it may have lots of whole grains, cheeses herbs or dried fruits. The simplest breads (flour yeast and water) can be very tasty. Some of Frances best baguettes are simple breads and are nowhere near "no flavor and so soft it gets stuck in your teeth."

Many commercial white breads are like this but they don't have to be.
posted by leafwoman at 6:02 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try red rice! It's awesome!
posted by Glendale at 6:27 PM on March 10, 2011

Don't underestimate the nutritional value of brown rice and whole wheat. The phrase "nutritional value" is so vague, isn't it? But brown rice contains a ton of vitamins and trace elements you're not likely to get elsewhere.

There's a lot of noise being made these days about chronic magnesium deficiency, for example. A 3.5oz serving of brown rice contains a whopping 143mg of magnesium. I just checked the label on my Centrum multivitamin, and it contains only 50mg!

Wikipedia has a good breakdown on the difference between brown rice and white rice.

I recently discovered a miracle of science called "whole grain white bread," which is whole grain bread that looks and tastes just like white bread. It's pretty great!
posted by ErikaB at 6:36 PM on March 10, 2011

Eating brown rice appears to significantly reduce the risk of developing diabetes, while white rice increases it. Of course that might only be because people who eat brown rice also do other things right with respect to food and exercise, but it still makes sense to opt for brown rice at least part of the time.
posted by Ery at 6:52 PM on March 10, 2011

I have a Japanese rice maker, and it has settings for 7 rices on a spectrum between white and brown. I wish I could chose like that. So there could be shades of, um, gray between white and brown.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:27 PM on March 10, 2011

Nthing "Glycemic index!". White rice and white flour, like white sugar, will elevate insulin levels immediately and keep them artificially elevated, causing an entire cascade of hormonal and metabolic dysfunctions in the body when eaten regularly. Insulin is implicated in the formation of adipose tissue (aka fat), and medical science is beginning to believe that insulin and not number of calories consumed or exercise is what regulates body fat in humans. These foods, due to their ubiquity, inevitably end up replacing high-protein and high-fat foods in the diet and are being implicated in the obesity epidemic.

Doctors who treat obesity and diabetes have been prescribing low- to no-refined carbohydrate diets since the late 1800's.

It has been observed that the introduction of white rice and white flour, in all cultures previously observed eating a native or non-Western diet, immediately precedes a massive explosion of overweight, obesity, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. (See the Pima Indians, for example, who have the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the world and live almost entirely on refined carbs.)

For a great and fairly technical primer, read Good Calories, Bad Calories. If you're in a hurry, read this.

While medical science is still working on understanding refined carbs, it's my opinion that there is sufficient research already available to make the statement that these foods are very much worth avoiding and that yes, they are demonstrably worse than their less-processed counterparts.

Anecdotally, whenever I avoid them, I feel about ten years younger. For whatever that's worth.
posted by goblinbox at 10:03 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

White rice and white wheat flour-based foods are basically calories with some extra vitamins added. People who are physically active need more calories, and these are a good way to get them. If you aren't physically active, in your diet, these starches may be taking the place of foods that pack more nutrition per calorie, described as nutritionally dense. They lack fiber, which strongly affects the way the starches are converted to sugars, and how your body processes them. That's especially important to people with diabetes. I quite like the taste and texture of brown rice and whole wheat breads, and prefer them to white. Glycemic Index on Wikipedia
posted by theora55 at 11:00 AM on March 11, 2011

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