A Global Grain: The Health Benefits and Culinary Uses of Rice

A food staple for nearly half the world population, rice is embedded in the cuisines of many cultures. The Chinese word for “meal” literally translates to “eat rice.”

All rice varieties contain carbohydrates, protein, trace amounts of fat and sodium, and are gluten free. Whole-grain rice contains more protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals than white rice, and colored varieties boast more antioxidants. While whole-grain rice is preferred for its inherently better nutrition profile, the nutrients added to enriched white rice — niacin, thiamin, folic acid and iron — are important to the diet, too.

Emerging research shows that rice, both white and brown, is a source of resistant starch, which increases total dietary fiber and lowers the glycemic response due to slower digestion. Resistant starch quantities vary depending on the type of rice and cooking methods used.

The shape and length of the rice kernel (short-grain, medium-grain or long-grain) determines its texture when cooked, in addition to the appropriate types to use in dishes and cuisines. Long-grain, which cooks light and fluffy with the kernels separated, is often used for making pilafs, stuffings, rice salads and jambalaya. Medium-grain rice is moist and tender and commonly used for making paella and risotto. With shorter, rounder kernels, short-grain rice becomes moist and “sticky,” making it a great option for rice puddings, desserts and eating with chopsticks.

Rice is often consumed with other nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds, lean meat, poultry and seafood. It is also a low-cost, versatile cooking ingredient that is easy to prepare, stretches the food budget and can carry the flavors of any global cuisine.

Arborio is a medium- or shortgrain rice with high starch content used to make risotto, an Italian rice dish cooked and stirred slowly in a broth to a creamy consistency. (Carnaroli and Vialone Nano are other rice varieties used to make risotto.) Arborio is also used for rice pudding and other desserts.

An aromatic long-grain rice grown in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, basmati comes in white or brown varieties. It has a distinct flavor and aroma and produces a tender, fluffy texture and grains do not stick together. It is often used in curries and stir-fries, but is also great for side dishes.

Also referred to as “purple” or “forbidden” rice, the dark hue of this grain is due to its high anthocyanin content. It is a whole-grain rice available in both short- and long-grain varieties. The short-grain variety is often used to make sticky rice, porridge and rice pudding.

Available in short-, medium- and long-grain varieties, a half-cup of brown rice equals one whole-grain serving. It contains more magnesium, selenium and fiber than enriched white rice and can be eaten as a breakfast cereal, used in sushi and puddings, and substituted for white rice in most recipes.

Originally from Thailand, this rice has a distinctive floral aroma and nutty flavor that pairs well with Mediterranean dishes. It cooks tender, light and fluffy and is available in both white and brown varieties. Steaming, rather than boiling, provides the best results.

This whole-grain rice is rich in nutrients and high in antioxidants due to its varying hues of red color. It is available as a long-grain variety from Thailand and a medium-grain from Bhutan, and its nutty, chewy texture lends well to rice bowls, pilafs, rice salads and stuffings.

Available in short-, medium- and long-grain varieties, most white rice in the U.S. is enriched with thiamin, niacin, folic acid and iron. Avoid rinsing white rice before and after cooking, in order to keep the nutrients from being washed away.

Despite its name, wild rice is actually not rice at all, but a semi-aquatic grass species indigenous to North America. Its long, slender, dark kernels have a nutty flavor, chewy texture and contain more protein than white and brown rice. Wild rice is often mixed with brown rice or bulgur wheat, and it pairs well  with fruits, nuts, meats, poultry and fish in salads, soups, stews and pilafs.


Sweet Brown Rice with Curry, Carrots and Raisins

Developed by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann

The green curry paste provides a sumptuous counterpoint to the carrots and raisins, so don’t skip it. Serve with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt or hummus on the side to offset the sweetness.

1 cup long-grain brown rice or brown jasmine rice
1 medium carrot cut into matchsticks
1/4 cup golden raisins or diced apple
2 cups water or vegetable broth
1⁄3 cup unsweetened apple juice
1/2 to 1 teaspoon mild or hot green curry paste


  1. Place the rice, carrot and raisins in a medium rice cooker bowl. Add the water and apple juice, then the curry paste; swirl just to combine.
  2. Close the cover and set for the regular cycle. When the machine switches to the “keep warm” cycle, let the rice steam for 5 minutes.
  3. Gently fluff the rice with a wooden or plastic rice paddle or wooden spoon. Serve hot.

Nutritional Info
Serving size: 1/2 cup
Serves 6

Calories: 150
Total fat: 1g; Saturated fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium 40mg
Carbohydrates: 31g; Fiber: 3g; Sugars: 7g
Protein 3g; Potassium: n/a; Phosphorus: n/a

Recipe from The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook, 10th Anniversary ed. (Harvard Common Press 2012).


Tabbouleh-Style Basmati Rice Salad

Developed by Marie Simmons

The dish has the flavors of Tabbouleh, with basmati rice instead of the traditional bulgur. Use all white basmati or a mixture of white and brown (cooked separately).

1 cup uncooked basmati rice
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon tahini
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch of cayenne
2 cups diced seeded tomatoes
1 cup diced seedless cucumber
1 cup finely chopped curly leaf parsley, including stems
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions (white and green parts)
1/4 cup finely chopped mint, plus a few sprigs for garnish
Cherry tomatoes for garnish

  1. Heat 1 ¼ cups water to a boil in a shallow saucepan or deep skillet. Add the rice and ½ teaspoon salt; cook covered over low heat until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Let stand, uncovered, until cooked.
  2. Fluff with a fork.
  3. For the dressing, whisk oil, lemon juice, tahini, garlic, ½ teaspoon salt and the cayenne in a large bowl. Add the rice, tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, scallions and mint. Toss to blend.
  4. Spoon the salad onto a platter. Garnish with cherry tomatoes and mint sprigs.
  5. Serve at room temperature.

Nutritional Info
Serving size: 1 cup
Serves 8

Calories: 170
Total fat: 8g; Saturated fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium 250mg
Carbohydrates: 22g; Fiber: 1.5g; Sugars: 2g
Protein 1g; Potassium: 229mg; Phosphorus: 61mg

From The Amazing World of Rice with 150 Recipes for Pilafs, Paellas, Puddings, and More (Harper Collins 2003).

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Rachel Begun
Rachel Begun, MS, RD, provides education, communications and consulting services to health organizations and the food industry and educates the public via speaking opportunities, online activities and writing for publications, including her blog The Gluten-RD. Connect with Rachel on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest via her website at RachelBegun.com.