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Why Do Asians Eat Mainly White Rice?

I thought I would take a moment to answer the following question, sent in by a reader of our weekly newsletter:

"Asian culture is big on polished white rice with all their meals. Do you eat white rice or brown, and why? And why is (it) that Asians don't switch to a healthier carb like brown rice?"

Thank you,
John B.



My wife and I eat brown rice most of the time, as we like its texture, taste, and nutritional value. We eat white rice on occasion, usually when we need to make a quick meal or when we visit family members who eat mainly white rice.

One of the reasons why Asians have used mainly white rice over the years is that white rice lasts longer in storage than brown rice. The essential fatty acids found in brown rice usually begin to go bad after approximately 6 to 12 months of storage, the exact amount of time depending on how much oxygen is available. When brown rice is polished down to make white rice, many of the essential fatty acids are lost, allowing white rice to last longer than brown rice without going bad.

Another reason why many Asians prefer white rice is that they have become accustomed to how easy it is to chew and digest. Brown rice requires more chewing power to properly digest than white rice does.

Some Asians refuse to eat brown rice because to them, it's a sign of poverty. Many Asians who are above 40 years of age have been deeply conditioned to believe that prosperous people eat white rice while peasants eat brown rice.

Finally, many Asians choose white rice over brown rice because white rice is less expensive. White rice is far less expensive to produce and distribute because it is in greater global demand and produces higher profits because of its longer shelf life.

For more information on this topic, you can read my Guidelines on Eating White and Brown Rice for Health.


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C/W Rice Sunday 26th April 2009

As a main source of nourishment for over half the world's population, rice is by far one of the most important commercial food crops. Its annual yield worldwide is approximate
ly 535 million tons. Fifty countries produce rice, with China and India supporting 50% of total production. Southeast Asian countries separately support an annual production
rate of 9-23 million metric tons of which they export very little. Collectively, they are termed the Rice Bowl. Over 300 million acres of Asian land is used for growing rice. Rice
production is so important to Asian cultures that oftentimes the word for rice in a particular Asian language also means food itself.
Rice is a member of the grass family (Gramineae). There are more that 10,000 species of grasses distributed among 600 genera. Grasses occur worldwide in a variety of
habitats. They are dominant species in such ecosystems as prairies and steppes, and they are an important source of forage for herbivorous animals. Many grass species are
also primary agricultural crops for humans. As well as rice, they include maize, wheat, sorghum, barley, oats, and sugar cane.
Typically, grass species are annual plants or are herbaceous perennials that die back to the ground at the end of the growing season and then regenerate the next season by
shoots developing from underground root systems. Shoots generally are characterized by swollen nodes or bases. Leaves are long and narrow, varying in width from
0.28-0.79 in (7-20 mm). Flowers are small and are called florets. Grasses pollinate by using the wind to widely and opportunistically disperse grass pollen. The fruits are
known as a caryopsis or grain, are one-seeded, and can contain a large concentration of starch.
Classified in the genus Oryza, there are two species of domesticated rice—O. sativa and 0. glaberrima. 0. sativa is the most common and often cultivated plant, occurring in
Africa, America, Australia, China, New Guinea, and South Asia. The natural habitat of rice is tropical marshes, but it is now cultivated in a wide range of subtropical and tropi
cal habitats. Unlike other agricultural crop grasses, rice plants thrive under extremely moist conditions and moderate temperatures. The ideal climate is roughly 75° F (24° C)
Average plant height varies between 1.3-16.4 ft (0.4-5 m). Its growth cycle is between three to six months (agriculturally, this is broken down into three phases lasting appro
ximately 120 days). Rice plants produce a variety of short- to long-grain rices, as well as aromatic grains.
There are three different types of rice: japonica, javanica, and indica. Japonica rice varieties are high yielding and tend to be resistant to disease. Javanica types of rice fall
between japonica and indica varieties in terms of yield, use, and hardiness. Although quite hardy, indica yield less than japonica types and are most often grown in the tropics.
Because cultivation is so widespread, development of four distinct types of ecosystems has occurred. They are commonly referred to as irrigated, rainfed lowland, upland, and
flood-prone agroecological zones. Irrigated ecosystems are the primary type found in East Asia. Irrigated ecosystems provide 75% of global rice production. Irrigated rice is
grown in bunded (embanked), paddy fields. Rainfed lowland ecosystems only sustain one crop per growing season and fields are flooded as much as 19.7 in (50 cm) during
part of the season. Rainfed low-land rice is grown in such areas as East India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand, and is 25% of total rice area used worldwide.
Production is variable because of the lack of technology used in rice production. Rainfed lowland farmers are typically challenged by poor soil quality, drought/flood conditions
and erratic yields. Upland zones are found in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is the primary type of rice ecosystem in Latin America and West Africa. Upland rice fields
are generally dry, unbunded, and directly seeded. Land utilized in upland rice production runs the gamut of descriptions. It can be low lying, drought-prone, rolling, or steep
sloping. Usually, crops are either sown interspersed with another crop, intermittently with another crop, or the crop is shifted every few years to a new location. Lastly,
flood-prone ecosystems are prevalent in South and Southeast Asia, and are characterized by periods of extreme flooding and drought. Yields are low and variable.
Flooding occurs during the wet season from June to November, and rice varieties are chosen for their level of tolerance to submersion.
Rice is mostly eaten steamed or boiled, but it can also be dried and ground into a flour. Like most grains, rice can be used to make beer and liquors. Rice straw is used to
make paper and can also be woven into mats, hats, and other products.

I have lived in Thailand for over 15 years in a variety of setting. Currently I live outside Udon Thani, a rice growing area. Many of the people I know are rice farmers. I also have know Rice farmers and local merchants all over Thailand and visit the local produce Markets often.

The local rice here is not sold to any rice companies that process rice. Mostly this rice is sold directly by the farmers to the stall operators and then sold without any processing other then the first thrashing.

This rice is grown on a massive scale and Thailand is a major exporter. The Rice that is sold in the local Supermarkets in Thailand such as Big-C Marco, Tesco Lotus and Robinson's sell the same rice that is sold in the local markets that come directly from the farms.

This locally grown and sold rice is WHITE, not brown.
So the Americans who are in favor of brown rice and against white rice because it is milled must rethink their arguments. Most of the white rice eaten here in Thailand is white and unprocessed.

Back home in the Philippines, white rice is not polished or processed like you said in Thailand as well.
In the USA, they claimed that whire rice is the result of processed or polished brown rice. I find this funny, as I farmed or grown white rice, brown rice, red rice and black rice in the Philippines. White rice has all been originated as white rice. We don't polished or processed white rice.
I believed in USA, they polished the white rice for looks to make all grains in brighter white color and alter its nutritional value as the result of the processing. Oh boy, such work to make profits and deceiving the mass. Oh boy.
In the 1920s, cigarettes where marketed as not dangerous to health. They even have physicians smoke in the ad on TV. Noticed, that old black and white movies almost everyone smoked and filled the room with smoke. Oh boy, for the same of profits. Then lung cancer came due to smoking (yep, marketers are experts on deceiving the mass).
Thanks you for reading.

I agree with this comment above. Not all white rice are processed. I live in the Philippines and all my life I have been eating unprocessed white rice. My grandmother used to sell rice when I was a child and she was the one who dries the unpeeled grains under the heat of the sun for several days, then a vehicle with big machine at the back or "pagalingan" in our native dialect, takes the peel off the grains and leaving us with white rice. Even though you take the peel off by your own hands you can see that the rice is white. Not brown or red, etc. Most of the rice sold here, especially in our local market, are white in different varieties and Filipino people, rich or poor, eat rice 2 to 3 meals a day so 1 sack of rice will probably last for only a few months and long storage life of rice here is not really a big deal.

Hi llonga,
"Processing" does not necessarily mean "treated in some industrial factory".
The "pagalingan" machine you describe that takes off the rice peel in fact does the processing
. That's all there's to it. Basically, if you would let the machine run shorter, you'd get what we call brown rice. It's not really brown, just a little less white because less of the outside has been removed.
Ofcourse it tastes different also, which I personally think is the main reason people prefer white rice.

I think there's a misunderstanding here. We know the actual seed that is "white rice" is white, but the husk is brown in colour, which is what we call brown rice. So again, to us(or me at least) brown rice is white rice with the husk still on it. You do "process" the rice by removing the husk, whether you consider that processing or not is up for debate I guess.

Thank you so much for explaining this! I teach at a Hagwon in South Korea, and this has been a part of the culture that I have really had a hard time understanding. One of the boys in my class doesn't like rice, and I have never made a big deal about it. I am much more concerned about him eating his kimchi and other vegetables! However, when the Korean teachers found out that he didn't want to eat his rice, he actually got in trouble! I am from North America, so this is something that was hard for me to grasp, culturally speaking. If someone doesn't like one kind of food, there is always another source of those nutrients, so the idea that someone should HAVE to eat a certain food is strange to me.

You can't make such a generalized statement about how things are in North America. I'm from the US, relatively young, and the idea that a student would HAVE to eat a given food is not at all foreign. It's true that kids are more coddled and accommodated today (especially in certain regions) but this is not universally-true in North America. Besides, you're talking about a young student, and how he's treated by a teacher. When I was growing up, if we didn't eat every single thing our parents packed for our school lunch, or, in the case of hot lunches purchased at school, didn't clean our trays, we'd get in trouble with the teachers. Certainly if, say, we ate in the meat and vegetables in a sandwich, but not the bread (considered more "core" to the diet) we would get in trouble.