Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Like white on rice

Another important staple in the Korean diet, as well as the diet of practically all of Asia, is rice. Every meal you order in Korea is served with some form of rice, be it rice cakes, a thick pasta-like version, coupled with spicy red sauce in dduk bok gi, sticky rice in the Korean version of sushi, gimbap (includes processed cheese slices and ham :S), or in makgeolli, a milky rice wine often drunk alongside greasy potato pancakes.

You have to hand it to the Koreans for being so creative with this one crop, but the question that I have is,

“Why white rice?”

With rice making up a reported 35% of food intake in East Asia, why not go for the original, and much more nutritious, brown rice (1)?

Stripping the rice down

Just to clarify, white rice is rice that is milled in order to remove the husk, the bran layer, and the germ from the original grain. Now, it is absolutely necessary to remove the husk in order to make the rice edible, but the removal of the other layers is purely a matter of taste. Unfortunately, removing these layers means removing most of the rice’s nutrients as well. On the left is a summary of what is lost (2).

I remember learning in a university nutrition class that milling, or polishing, rice began in the 1800s and was a sign of affluence. When this process became mainstream in Asia I’m not sure, but what is certain is that there were some serious problems that appeared, including, most notably, beriberi, a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, which is removed during milling. What is interesting about this situation is that it is a very rare case of the poor having a better diet than the rich.

These days many developed countries enrich their rice, although regulations vary from country to country. How removing the nutrients and then putting them back makes any sense, I have no idea, but this is how it is done in many privileged countries. Although certain vitamins and minerals can be added back to the rice via enrichment, milling strips away the majority of the fiber, and this can have serious consequences for the health of a rice-eating nation (2).

The link to diabetes

One of the major problems, which has been fairly widely discussed in the scientific community as of late, is Type 2 diabetes. White rice has a higher glycemic index than brown rice does, which means it causes sugar levels in the blood to increase faster than brown rice does (3). (The fiber that is removed during the milling process helps slow the rush of sugar into the blood.) (2).
I read a CBC article a couple of months ago about how eating brown rice in lieu of white rice appears to prevent diabetes, and it prompted me to look into diabetes and metabolic syndrome, (a precursor to diabetes), rates in Korea, where so many people eat so much white rice.

It turns out that diabetes in Korea is common. The report, which was based on the 2001 Korean National Health and Nutrition Survey, looked at adults over the age of 20, and found that 7.6% had diabetes. If the results are age-adjusted, this means that a whopping 1.4 million Korean men and 1.3 million Korean women have diabetes, if not more. The study goes on to state that half of the diabetes cases in Korea remain undiagnosed. These figures include both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes (4).

This statistic is comparable to a 6.0% diabetes rate in Canada (5) (and 7.7% in the U.S. (2)). For a nation that still manages to maintain a fairly consistent traditional diet, this is a large
figure…much too large. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to associate diabetes (at least Type 2 diabetes, the preventable kind you develop later on in life), with people who have a poor diet, maybe don’t exercise too often…you know, the usual poor lifestyle choices. However, from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t appear that these habits are overly common in Korea, at least not to the extent that we see in the West.

I can’t help but think that this massive consumption of white rice in Korea must play at very least a minor role in the high rates of diabetes.

Ditching the white

The study in the CBC article found that replacing just one-third serving of white rice a day with brown rice could lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 16%...and that’s just a tiny portion of what Koreans are eating every day (6). Imagine what replacing every serving of white rice with brown rice could do!

The problem is changing people’s attitudes towards white rice. For many, brown rice is associated with backwardness and poverty, not to mention the fact that people have come to acquire a taste for white rice, myself included (7).

Having been raised on white rice, the switch to brown rice is a transition in progress for me. It’s not that the taste of brown rice is bad, but the grains are noticeably grittier than those of soft white rice, with an almost nutty flavor. The fiber superiority of brown rice is, however, almost immediately apparent…if you know what I mean.

In the end, changing the main component of a whole society’s diet is probably a bit ambitious for now, but on an individual level, it is fully achievable, and this shift from white to brown can make a difference to your health. Switch from white to what’s right (tonight)!


(1) Kiple KF and Kriemhild CO. The Cambridge World History of Food. Access date: August 10, 2010.
(2) The President and Fellows of Harvard College. 2010. Can brown rice blunt an epidemic? Access date: August 10, 2010.
(3) CBC. 2010. Brown rice better at preventing diabetes: study. Access date: August 10, 2010.
(4) Kim SM et al. 2006. Prevalence of Diabetes and Impaired Fasting Glucose in Korea. Diabetes Care 29: 226-231.
(5) Diabetes, by age group and sex. 2010. Statistics Canada. Access date: August 12, 2010.
(6) Sun Q et al. 2010. White Rice, Brown Rice, and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women. Arch Intern Med 170 (11): 961-969.
(7) Javier EQ, Asia Rice Foundation. 2004. Let’s promote rice to combat hidden hunger. Access date: August 17, 2010.


  1. Tess, I'm really enjoying your blog - reminds me so much of living there and figuring out what to eat, when and how!

    I would love you to do a post on seaweed! They eat it like crisps there (as you know) but its super healthy...

    Anyways, I used to get one of those 'triangle' sushis with tuna everyday lunch at my school, but I would remove half the rice. My co-teachers were so incredulous... I tried to explain that rice is a bit like sugar, and I didn't want to eat too much - but they just never got it.

    Anyways, loving the blog!


  2. Thanks Brie! Means a lot coming from you, having a food blog yourself AND having lived in Korea!

    I have actually never had those triangle things from here, although I see them everywhere! We've been eating gimbap, but I'm not 100% sold on it. Something about salty ham chunks and processed cheese in a roll that doesn't quite strike my fancy!

    I will definitely look into the seaweed! I know it's healthy, but not much more, so would be interesting!

    Thanks for reading!