Monday, March 28, 2011

Robin Broad and John Cavanagh: The Story of Refined White Rice

The Story of Refined White Rice: How a once nutritious grain was transformed into something unhealthy to eat.
by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh


After farmers harvest their rice, it typically goes to a mill. There, it is cleaned and the husks are taken off the grains of rice. At this point, it is referred to as “brown rice” or “unpolished” rice. Once the husk has been taken off the rice, there remain several very thin layers of wholesome bran. At this stage, the rice is full of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and protein—and very healthy to eat.

Polishing rice from so-called “dirty rice” into the sparkling white form that most people prefer has caused—yes, caused— major, adverse impacts on health.The story would stop there were it not for the technological “modernization,” starting about a century and a half ago, of corporations developing technology to refine rice (and other grains) further. In the case of rice, milling technology created the possibility of peeling the bran off the grain and polishing what is left into shiny, white rice.

But polishing rice from so-called “dirty rice” into the sparkling white form that most people prefer has caused—yes, caused—a number of major, adverse impacts on health.

First, polishing removes most of the vitamins and minerals vital to one’s health. One example: the rice bran contains vitamin B and thiamine, both key to preventing beriberi. Indeed, in the largest World War II prison camp in the Philippines (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.

White rice also increases the risk of diabetes, rates of which are rising quickly in the Philippines, the United States and many other countries. The rice layers removed during polishing 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.” In our travels in the Philippines and the United States, we meet people who are shifting to brown rice on their doctors’ orders precisely because of concerns about diabetes.

To Read the Entire Essay

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