The Story of Refined White Rice

How a once nutritious grain was transformed into something unhealthy to eat.

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Photo by the International Rice Research Institute.

The time we spend with organic rice farmers in the Philippines leads us to think much more about what we eat. It turns out that about half of the food we humans consume comes from just three main grains: wheat, corn, and rice. While we get half of our calories from these cereals, we get considerably less than half of our nutrients.

But the story of the modern grain, we discover, is even more insidious than just this. And so in this entry, we share the story of how a once nutritious grain was transformed into something unhealthy to eat. Our tale includes corporations, technological “modernization,” global trade, and culture.

We focus on rice in this current entry (leaving corn and wheat to future travels).

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. 

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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.

And polishing rice also reduces the protein content of the rice, which can mean the difference between being well-nourished or malnourished. The bottom line on all of these health fronts is the same: the more polished the rice, the less healthy.

Why then, do most Filipinos—outside of the organic farmers and those who have taken their doctors’ advice—eat unhealthy rice three times a day? We ask a number of our non-farmer friends across the Philippines, people whom we respect. “White rice tastes better” is the most common answer. “Our children find white rice easier to digest,” several tell us. Or, “it is hard to find unpolished brown rice.” Some point out, accurately, that it takes longer to cook brown rice, thus requiring more fuel. And a few mention that brown rice sitting in containers in your kitchen can invite more insects, which are attracted to all the same nutrients that make brown rice so healthy. 

By switching to brown rice, the Philippines (one of the world’s top rice importers) could eliminate rice imports and enhance food sovereignty.
By switching to brown rice, the Philippines (one of the world’s top rice importers) could eliminate rice imports and enhance food sovereignty.

These are sincere answers but not enough to convince us that the obstacles to brown rice are insurmountable. Therefore the answers make us want to understand even more about the “how” and “why” behind white rice.

As we dig into history, we discover there is a much deeper answer to “why white rice?” A century and a half ago, people across Asia ate unpolished rice in great quantities. When Westerners brought rice mills to the Philippines a century ago, Filipinos are reported to have found the taste of the new white rice strange, and it took a while to get used to it. Traders who exported rice demanded that it be shipped as polished white rice—which weighed less and stored longer and hence increased their profits—and further proliferated its consumption. Then, over the decades, the dominant elite culture defined brown rice as “dirty” and fit only for the poor; while white rice was seen as sophisticated and modern. “American rice,” we have heard it called. The consumption of white polished rice spread, even as it denied people and their children vital nutrients. 

Brown rice drying in the sun in the Philippines. Brown rice is nutrient-rich, but the process of refining it into popular, cheap white rice strips the grain of its nutritional value.

Photo by John Cavanagh.

Filipinos aren’t alone; hundreds of millions of Americans, Chinese, Thais, Japanese and others have also shifted from healthier unpolished rice to polished white rice over the past century as mechanized rice milling spread. Their and our health, too, has suffered. And while we have shared the story of rice here, there is a similar story for wheat and corn, which starts with mechanized machines to refine these cereals beginning around the 1870s.

A shift to unpolished rice and whole grain wheat and corn would enhance health across the board. Also, since whole grains contain more nutrients per calorie than polished and refined grains, people need less of it to fill their stomachs. This actually has more widespread ramifications for current trade-dependent development models. For example, by our calculations, with a switch to brown rice, the Philippines (one of the world’s top rice importers) could eliminate rice imports and enhance food sovereignty. Not surprisingly, the story of how diets became unhealthy is also part of the broader story of how lives became less rooted and more vulnerable to crises.

When we decided to live with communities of organic rice farmers in the Philippines to learn about “rooted” lives, we did not expect that we would find ourselves reflecting on whole-grain diets. But it is all related.

Look for our future blogs, when we travel to the north of Trinidad and also to El Salvador.

 


John Cavanagh and Robin BroadJohn Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.