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food / travel

China's Existential Question: Is Rice Unhealthy?

What happens when the rice v. wheat debate arrives in a land that has been eating the white stuff for 12,000 years.

Feeding the masses
Feeding the masses
Xin Li

BEIJING — A recent article declaring rice "the king of junk food" has set China's Internet boiling over. The article argues that white rice is nutritionally deficient, containing very little protein, adipose, vitamins and minerals, and that its starch content technically qualifies it as junk food.

Generally, those in northern China tend to eat noodles, while southerners choose rice instead. Still, rice is estimated to be the staple food of more than half the Chinese population.

"In America, whether rice or wheat is healthier has always been a controversial subject," says Zhang Chao, who studied and lived in the U.S. for many years.

Zhang recalls a lunch he had with a Thai classmate. When seeing the rice they were eating, one American classmate told them with disdain, "Why do you Asian guys like this non-nutritious stuff?" Then the American pulled out some yogurt with oats — a "perfect" food from a strictly nutritional point of view, because it's rich in dietary fiber, aids digestion, stimulates gastrointestinal motility, and avoids fat being stocked in the body.

This was a big shock for Zhang, who had been eating rice as a staple food for over 20 years.

Zhang's American classmate wasn't wrong. The official website of Harvard's School of Public Health nutrition department has designed a Healthy Eating Pyramid to guide consumers. It divides daily nutrition sources into four major groups — the ones to be eaten the most often (and the greater variety the better), the ones to be eaten more moderately, the ones to eat very moderately, and the ones to be eaten sparingly.

The pyramid recommends avoiding white rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, red meat, processed meat and butter, refined grains, sugary drinks, sweets and salt. But 20 years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was putting rice, bread and grains at the bottom of the pyramid, meaning that they were supposed to be staple foods.

Refined or unrefined?

In dietetician Liu Na's view, demonizing rice is out of context. "We have to specify one concept first — for example, most of the rice or bread we eat today is refined. Therefore, when talking about nutrition, white rice is often taken as a negative example because this beautiful grain that has been polished and de-husked provides too many empty calories while containing only 36% of other nutritional ingredients."

The science of dietetics is relatively new. The brown rice that nutritionists now prefer used to be a symbol of poverty back when machinery was underdeveloped, meaning that unrefined rice still contained the cortex, the rice aleurone layer and the germ. It takes much longer to cook and also tastes rough. But while it may be a little unappetizing to some, brown rice provides dietary fiber that people often lack, not to mention a considerable amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

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Mealtime in Shanghai. Photo: OG2T

So why is rice considered inferior to wheat?

As Liu Na points out, most grains are refined. "For instance, the best part of the flour — the wheat bran — is almost all gone in white flour. It's true that if the same quantity of refined rice and flour are compared, the flour has twice as much vitamin B1 and B2 as the rice.

In recent years nutrition experts have come to attach greater importance to B1 and B2 because problems such as fatigue are related to inadequate intake of these vitamins. The trouble is that they can't be stored in our bodies, and therefore they need to be consumed frequently.

People eating rice as their staple food are also more susceptible to suffering from Beriberi, a metabolism-related disease that can lead to total paralysis of the limbs and, eventually, death. This is probably the strongest criticism of rice. The disease ravaged Japan in the late 19th century and almost destroyed the entire Japanese Navy.

Knowing that the British Navy had stopped the scourge of scurvy by changing the soldiers' diet, Japanese medical officers compared the Japanese army diet with that of the British. The most apparent difference was that the British ate almost no rice, instead consuming other grains such as barley. When the Japanese army substituted barley for the rice, it solved the problem. So since the Meiji Restoration, as milling technology advanced, brown rice disappeared from the diets of urban Japanese and members of the army.

"From a protein point of view, though, rice contains an average of 7.3%, while wheat contains 10.7%," Liu says. "The wheat is poorer in nutrients because of the lack of lysine. Besides, 45% of Chinese people are intolerant of the protein in flour, which leads to a chronic allergic reaction and causes them to be overweight, though most people don't know this. In addition, rice contains more water and gives more of a sense of satiety with a relatively lower thermal energy and is thus easier for weight loss."

Building the races with food

No longer a rice eater, Zhang Chao notes that "people in southern and southeast Asia who eat rice as their main food are relatively small in stature." He also quotes the theory behind The Food of China written by American ethnobiologist Eugene N. Anderson. Though the Chinese continent comprises high mountains and basins and is rich in flora and fauna that provide diverse food options, the book notes, the Chinese somehow chose — and choose — rice as their staple. It may be nutritionally poor, but it is high in economic value and has helped the Chinese spawn a large population.

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Reaping the harvest in Guangxi. Photo: Grey World

Food writer Hong Yie rather prefers to argue that humans have always followed the optimal foraging theory in choosing their food sources according to the environmental conditions they live in. "The fact that southerners prefer rice and the northerners wheat is determined by the environment," Hong says.

The warm, humid lushness of the Chinese south is a natural bed for wild rice, so as early as 12,000 years ago rice had been domesticated. Meanwhile, the arid north can only plant drought-resistant and alkali-resistant grains such as millet or corn. Wheat was a foreign grain that didn't come to China until about 4,000 years ago. "Thanks to its advantages of yield and resistance to pests and diseases, it replaced other grains to become the northerners' main food," Hong says.

Zhang is convinced that "none of the nations in the world whose staple is rice is strong physically," but Hong disagrees. Advantages of height or physique are never the result of a single food but are related largely to the environment and physical activity. "The Japanese conducted some experiments encouraging people to eat more noodles and bread," Hong says. "But their scientists discovered eventually that an increase in height has nothing to do with the intake of pasta. Rather it's more to do with soybean and milk products because a proper calcium intake will help people to grow bigger."

Rice vs. wheat self-images

While there is no clear evidence that eating rice or flour will cause physical differences, scientists concluded in a piece entitle "Rice Theory," published in Science last May, that different staple foods lead to psychological differences. For instance, Western culture is more individualized and analytical in its thinking, whereas Asians are more community-oriented and interested in holistic thinking.

One of the tests conducted in this rice theory research asked participants to draw their own social network with circles representing themselves and their connections. The researcher then measured the size of circles to find out the implicit measurement of these participants.

The test discovered that people from rice-growing regions are much more inclined to draw their own circles smaller than those of others. The people from wheat-growing regions have an inflated ego compared compared to others.

"Preferences to physical characteristics such as tall or short are more influenced by cultural factors than by animal instinct," Hong says. "Evolution is more about adaptation, not about superiority."

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Guarding the stock in Wuxi. Photo: DaiLuo

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Guillaume Ptak

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