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The truth about rice: Why brown rice isn't always better

There are many varieties of this staple food on the market. Here's how to choose the best rice for your dish — and your health.
Varieties of rice
Whole-grain rice varieties like brown, red and black are not only an affordable option but they're also rich in fiber and B vitamins.Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

Rice is a staple ingredient in an endless array of recipes and it's found in millions of pantries around the world, but not all types are created equal — and with so many varieties available on store shelves today, it can be a little confusing about how to decipher which variety of the grain is best.

Eating brown rice, for example, is a great way to meet your daily whole grain needs. Studies have shown that whole grains are a longevity food that can help extend our healthy years and lower cholesterol. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommends that adults eat three to five servings of whole grains every day.

And rice is an easy — and tasty — way to get some of those servings. But which variety is best? According to Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, whole-grain rice varieties (like brown, red and black) are not only an affordable option but they're also rich in fiber, vitamins B1 and B6, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium and manganese.

But when it comes to finding the best rice for certain dishes, brown may not always be best. Here's a closer look at four of the most popular types of rice on the market and how to serve them.

Brown rice

Brown rice
Brown rice plated.Getty Images stock

Brown rice gets its name from the color of the grain. It is a whole grain, which means it is made up of all three essential, unprocessed components of the original grain: the bran, germ and endosperm.

"Brown rice is the more healthful choice [than white rice]. It has a lower glycemic index, [which means it] is less likely to contribute to type-2 diabetes, more micronutrients and more fiber," chef Sabrina Sexton, director of culinary at Commonpoint Queens and previous program director at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, told TODAY. "It also has a better, slightly nuttier taste and chewier texture."

Brown rice makes a great base for hearty grain bowls (the higher fiber content will help you feel fuller longer) as well as in dishes where a slightly nutty taste is appreciated, like a pilaf with roasted veggies. While brown rice can be substituted in almost any dish where white rice is used, it's important to note that the cooking time will need to be adjusted since brown rice takes a little longer to cook. Brown rice is not a good choice for dishes like puddings or risotto, however.

TRY THIS RECIPE: One-pot rice with veggies

Black rice

Close-Up Of Black Rice In Bowl On Cutting Board
Black rice is fun to use in desserts and puddings.Getty Images stock

Don't let this deeply colored rice intimidate you. Black rice (also known as "forbidden rice"), along with purple and red rice, is just like brown rice in that it is an unprocessed grain so it maintains a lot of its nutritious value.

In addition to the fiber, vitamins and minerals, the deep hues of these grains actually makes them healthier. Similar to blackberries and wild blueberries, the pigment comes from a plant phytochemical called anthocyanins and it's filled with antioxidants.

"Puddings and desserts are the way to go with black rice," chef Frank Proto, director of culinary operations at the Institute of Culinary Education, told TODAY. "It looks beautiful because of the color and it also gives a creamy texture."

On its own, the rice has a slightly nutty flavor akin to brown rice so it's also a great base for savory toppings.

TRY THIS RECIPE: Forbidden black rice

Wild rice

Wild Rice Directly Above View, Macro Shot. Traditional food.
Wild rice is often mixed with brown or white rice.Getty Images stock

Wild rice isn't actually wild in the traditional sense. NBC News health and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom told TODAY that "wild rice is not wild, and it’s not rice. It’s the seeds of edible grasses found in North America."

This "rice" is a healthy choice for people looking to add some nutritious texture texture to salads or other sides because it holds up well when sauced. According to Fernstrom, a 1 cup serving of wild rice has about 50 fewer calories than brown rice and 10 fewer grams of carbohydrates. It also provides more zinc, folic acid and vitamin E than brown rice.

"It is perfect for salads and pilafs because it is a bit on the heavier side and tends to hold up well," Proto said. That heaviness, however, may overpower certain dishes where a hardier texture isn't desired.

So while brown rice may get most of the credit as being the most nutrient-rich rice, wild rice has a host of great benefits that shouldn't be ignored.

TRY THIS RECIPE: Wild rice stuffing with almonds and cranberries

White rice

White Steamed Rice
Steamed white rice is seen in a lot of Asian dishes.Getty Images stock

White rice may be the least nutritious of the most popular rices but it's incredibly versatile. According to Harvard's Nutrition Source, white rice varieties are refined grains, which means it starts off just like brown rice but then the bran and embryo are polished off so only the "starchy white endosperm" remains. In the process, the majority of the grain's B vitamins, minerals and fiber are are also removed.

When a rice label says "enriched," that means B vitamins and iron have been added back in — so the grain is not completely devoid of nutrients, but it only has a fraction of what occurs naturally.

However, there's no need to shun white rice all together. Many white rice varieties work well for plethora of dishes like fried rice, jambalaya and more.

TRY THIS RECIPE: One-pot Mexican rice with black beans and corn

"If fiber and whole grains are consumed from other foods [such as] whole wheat bread, fiber rich fruits and veggies, then white rice can be incorporated into a healthy diet," Fernstrom said.

Another variety of white rice, jasmine rice is beautifully fragrant and makes a perfect base for many Asian dishes with rich, savory sauces. And the starchiness in white Arborio rice is unmatched for making creamy risottos loved by Italian chefs like Giada De Laurentiis.

TRY THIS RECIPE: Black pepper shrimp fried rice