There is no question that, in this barrel of rotten apples, wheat is the rottenest. But you still may not want to make cider with those other apples. What I call “non-wheat grains,” such as oats, barley, rye, millet, teff, sorghum, corn, and rice, are nonetheless seeds of grasses whose consumption has the potential for harmful effects.
I would classify non-wheat grains as less bad than the worst— modern wheat— but less bad is not necessarily good. (That extraordinarily simple insight— that less bad is not necessarily good— is one that will serve you well over and over as you learn to question conventional nutritional advice. You will realize that much of what we have been told by the dietary community, the food industry, and even government agencies violates this basic principle of logic again and again.) Less bad can mean that a variety of undesirable health effects can still occur with that seed’s consumption— those effects will just not be as bad as those provoked by modern wheat.
It’s true that rice is among the more benign of grains, though it’s far from harmless.
So what’s the problem with rice?
As with the seeds of all other grasses, rice shares the potential for excessive glycemic effects. Carbs account for 85 percent of the calories in rice, among the highest of all seeds of grasses. Rice-consuming cultures, for instance, can still experience plenty of diabetes. The carbohydrate in seeds, called amylopectin A, is rapidly digested by humans and raises blood sugar, gram for gram, higher than table sugar does. All non-wheat grasses, without exception, raise blood sugar and provoke glycation to similar degrees, including rice.
Rice is unique among grasses in its natural ability to concentrate inorganic arsenic from soil and water. (We can’t blame agribusiness for this effect.) Rice has a high arsenic content, according to reports confirmed by FDA analyses, though the FDA reassures us that no acute toxicity develops from such exposure. Substantial research, however, has associated chronic arsenic exposure with multiple forms of cancer, as well as cardiovascular and neurological diseases. In Bangladesh, where arsenic exposure is a major public health problem, increasing chronic arsenic exposure, starting at low levels, is associated with premalignant skin lesions, high blood pressure, neurological dysfunction, and increased mortality. This analysis suggests that adverse health effects can manifest with chronic exposure provided by as little as one serving (approximately 1 cup cooked) of rice per day. The FDA had previously established an upper limit for arsenic in apple juice of 10 parts per billion; analyses of rice have found many rice products approaching or exceeding this cutoff. The data that already exist linking low-level exposure of arsenic-contaminated water with increases in many chronic diseases is, in my mind, all the information we need. Makes you shudder to think about the old Rice Diet.
Rice shares the same lectin protein as wheat, wheat germ agglutinin. The lectin proteins of grains are, by design, toxins. Lectins discourage creatures, such as molds, fungi, and insects, from eating the seeds of a plant by sickening or killing them. After all, the seed is the means by which plants continue their species. When we consume plants, we consume defensive lectins.
The effects of lectin proteins on humans vary, from harmless to fatal. Most plant lectins are benign, such as those in spinach and white mushrooms, which cause no adverse effects when consumed as a spinach salad. The lectin of castor beans is an entirely different story; its lectin, ricin, is highly toxic and is fatal even in small quantities.
Interesting bit of history: ricin has been used by terrorists around the world. Gyorgy Markov, Bulgarian dissident and critic of the Soviet government, was murdered by KGB agents in 1978 when he was poked with the tip of an umbrella laced with ricin.
More about the lectin in seeds and grains
The lectin of the seed of wheat is wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). It is neither as benign as the lectin of spinach nor as toxic as the lectin of ricin; it is somewhere in between. WGA wreaks ill effects on everyone, regardless of whether you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or no digestive issues at all. The lectins of rye, barley, and rice are structurally identical to WGA and share all of its properties and are also called “WGA.” Interestingly, 21 percent of the amino acid structure of WGA lectins overlaps with ricin, including the active site responsible for shutting down protein synthesis, the site that accounts for ricin’s exceptional toxicity.
When a minute quantity, such as 1 milligram, of WGA is purified and intestinal tissue is exposed to it, intestinal glycoproteins are bound and severe damage that resembles the effects of celiac disease results. We also know that WGA compounds the destructive intestinal effects of celiac disease started by gliadin and other grain prolamin proteins. If you have inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease, lectins intensify the inflammation, making cramps, diarrhea, bleeding, and poor nutrient absorption worse.
WGA is oddly indestructible. It is unaffected by cooking, boiling, baking, or frying. WGA is also untouched by stomach acid. Though the acid produced in the human stomach is powerfully corrosive (dip your finger in a glass full of stomach acid and you won’t have a finger for very long), WGA is impervious to it, entering the stomach and passing through the entire gastrointestinal tract unscathed, undigested, and free to do what it likes to any glycoproteins. All in all, grain lectins are part of a potent collection of inflammatory factors. Indigestible or only partially digestible, they fool receptors and thwart hormonal signals .
GM– it’s simply not what it used to be.
The comforting notion that rice is among the most benign of grains is being challenged, as it has been the recipient of extensive genetic modification. This includes efforts to make it glyphosate resistant and able to express the Bt toxin, posing the same safety questions as for glyphosate-resistant and Bt toxin– containing corn.
Interestingly, one strain of rice— “Golden Rice”, which has been genetically modified to express beta-carotene to alleviate the vitamin A deficiency that plagues rice-consuming societies— has been at the forefront of the biotechnology effort to paint genetic modification as something beautiful to behold and safe for consumption. Agribusiness giant Syngenta has been promoting Golden Rice as an example of what the science of genetic modification can accomplish, despite the vigorous opposition of many farmers who wish to avoid using GM grains. Critics have also accused its promoters of trying to capitalize on a common nutrient deficiency by a more profitable route than, say, just having vitamin A– deficient populations eat an occasional sweet potato, which would match or exceed the benefits provided by Golden Rice. (But you can’t trademark a regular, nutritious sweet potato.) Much of the science purporting to explore the safety of GM crops reads more like marketing than science, with researchers gushing about the safety and nutrition of the crop, herbicide, or pesticide in question, rather than impartially reporting the science. This brings us to the fundamental problem when deep-pocketed influences such as agribusiness or the pharmaceutical industry are involved: How much can we believe when much of the positive “science” is generated by those who stand to benefit from it?
Though at the more benign end of the spectrum as far as seeds of grasses go, enthusiastic consumption of rice in any form (white, brown, or wild) is clearly not a good idea for health. Occasional consumption of small quantities (around ¼ cup) is likely all a healthy human can tolerate before triggering such concerns.