Different studies have evaluated the association between rice consumption and the risk of different cancer types and found that white rice consumption in low quantities may not be associated with cancer (or cause cancer). However, intake of a nutrition including moderate quantities of brown rice (with the bran) may be associated with a reduced risk of breast and colorectal cancers. Brown rice is also considered as a healthy food when taken in right quantities and is often included as part of the cancer patients’ diet. Even though brown rice is highly nutritious, a very high and frequent intake of brown rice may not be recommended as it is expected to contain arsenic which may cause cancers such as bladder cancer and also contains phytic acid that may reduce the ability to absorb certain nutrients by our body. Hence, when it comes to cancer, a personalized nutrition plan with the right foods and supplements with the right dosage, specific to the cancer type and treatment, is necessary to gain maximum benefits and stay safe.
Cancer has always been one of the biggest health concerns in the world. There are many types of treatments available for cancer to reduce its spread and also to kill the cancer cells. However, many of these treatments often lead to long term and short term side effects which reduce the quality of life of the patients and survivors. Hence, cancer patients, their care-givers and cancer survivors often look out for advice from their nutritionists or health care providers regarding diet/nutrition choices including food and dietary supplements as well as exercises so as to improve their quality of life and complement their ongoing treatments. Cancer patients and survivors also search for scientific evidence on the foods and supplements that can be included in their diet/nutrition plans to help their health condition.
These days, healthy people also seek scientific reports and news to find out whether a particular food can increase or decrease a specific type of cancer. One of the many such topics that they query over the internet is whether an increased intake of nutrition including white rice or brown rice can cause or increase the risk of cancer. In this blog, we will be elaborating on some of the studies that evaluated the association between rice consumption and the risk of different types of cancer. But, before zooming into the studies that evaluate whether rice can cause cancer, let us have a quick glance at some of the basic information regarding brown rice and white rice nutrition.
Different types of Rice
Rice is the staple food of different countries, serving more than 50% of the population across the world and has been an important part of the Asian diet since ancient times. It is considered as a quick source of energy. Traditionally, people used to have rice with the bran due to their nutritional benefits. However, over time, the polished rice became popular, especially in the urban region and the use of rice with bran got limited to the rural areas.
There are different types of rice available across the world which generally fall under the category of short, medium or long grain size.
Examples of different types of rice are:
- White Rice
- Brown Rice
- Red Rice
- Black Rice
- Wild Rice
- Jasmine Rice
- Basmati Rice
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Difference between Brown Rice and White Rice
As mentioned above, there are different types of rice available in the market in different shapes and colors. However, brown rice and white rice are the most popular ones and are widely discussed and compared for their varying nutritional benefits. Both brown rice and white rice are high carbohydrate and low fat foods. Some of the differences between brown rice and white rice nutrition are listed below:
- Compared to brown rice, white rice is more commonly consumed. However, brown rice is considered as a more healthier option than white rice in terms of the nutritional quality and health benefits and is also suggested for cancer patients. This is because, when white rice is processed, the hull, bran and germ are removed leaving just the starchy endosperm, however, when brown rice is processed, only the hull is removed. The bran and germ are left on the brown rice grain even after processing. Bran and germ are rich in fiber and are highly nutritious. Bran contains dietary fibers, tocopherols, tocotrienols, oryzanol, β-sitosterol, B vitamins and phenolic compounds that are beneficial to our health.
- A nutrition rich in brown rice may help in appetite control and weight loss due to the presence of rice bran and high fiber content compared to white rice. This also aids in the reduction of LDL cholesterol.
- Both brown rice and white rice are known as nutrition rich in carbohydrates, however, compared to white rice, brown rice contains fewer carbohydrates and more fiber.
- Brown rice is rich in minerals such as phosphorus calcium, manganese, selenium and magnesium, most of which are not present in white rice in significant amounts. Both brown and white rice contains lesser amounts of iron and zinc.
- Compared to white rice, brown rice nutrition results in lower glycemic index thereby avoiding rapid spike in blood sugar and may hence be more suitable for cancer patients.
- Brown rice also has a higher content of antioxidants such as B vitamins including thiamine, niacin and Vitamin B6 compared to white rice.
- Unlike white rice, brown rice contains phytic acid that may reduce the ability to absorb some of the nutrients by our body.
- Different grains are exposed to arsenic found in the soil and water which can be harmful. Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice. Hence a very high consumption of brown rice may not be always beneficial.
Studies on the Association of Rice Consumption and Cancer Risk
One of the main concerns of regular consumption of rice (brown or white rice) is whether rice consumption may elevate our exposure to arsenic and thereby increase the risk of different types of cancers or worsen conditions in cancer patients. Different studies that evaluated various dietary patterns with different types of nutrition including rice such as brown rice and white rice and their association with various types of cancer are elaborated below.
Rice Consumption and Cancer Risk in United States
In a study published in 2016, the researchers evaluated the association between nutrition including long-term consumption of total rice, white rice or brown rice and risk of developing cancers. For this, they used dietary information gathered based on validated food frequency questionnaires that were used in the female Nurses’ Health Study between 1984 and 2010, Nurses’ Health Study II between 1989 and 2009 and the male Health Professionals Follow-up Study between 1986 and 2008, which included a total of 45,231 men and 160,408 women, who were free of cancer when they were recruited for the study. During a follow up of 26 years, a total of 31,655 cancer cases were reported which included 10,833 men and 20,822 women. (Ran Zhang et al, Int J Cancer., 2016)
Analysis of the data from this study found that long-term consumption of total rice, white rice or brown rice may not be associated with a risk of developing cancer in the US men and women.
Rice Consumption and Bladder Cancer Risk
In an analysis published in 2019 which used dietary information from a U.S. population-based case–control study of bladder cancer, the researchers assessed the association between rice intake and risk of bladder cancer. The data was obtained based on validated food frequency questionnaires that were used in 316 bladder cancer cases identified through the New Hampshire State Department of Health and Human Services’ Cancer Registry and 230 controls which were selected from the New Hampshire residents obtained from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and Medicare enrollment lists. (Antonio J Signes-Pastor et al, Epidemiology. 2019)
The study found evidence of an interaction between very high consumption of brown rice and water arsenic concentrations. The researchers associated their findings to the point that a higher arsenic content may be present in brown rice compared to white rice and also a potential increase in arsenic burden may be seen in cooked rice if arsenic-contaminated cooking water was used.
However, the study did not provide any clear evidence that regular rice consumption can cause cancer or may contribute to the overall incidence of bladder cancer. But, as bladder cancer could have been a potential health hazard due to arsenic contents, the researchers suggested further detailed research including larger studies to evaluate any association between nutrition including brown rice consumption and bladder cancer risk.
Rice Consumption and Breast Cancer Risk
Nurses’ Health Study II in United States
In a study published in 2016, the researchers used dietary questionnaire (1991) based data to evaluate the association of individual grain-containing foods and whole and refined grain intake during adolescence, early adulthood, and premenopausal years with breast cancer risk in the Nurses’ Health Study II which included 90,516 premenopausal women aged between 27 and 44 years. The study was approved by the Human Subjects Committee at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, United States. During the follow-up till 2013, a total of 3235 invasive breast cancer cases were reported. 44,263 women reported their diet during high school, and between 1998 to 2013, a total of 1347 breast cancer cases were reported among these women. (Maryam S Farvid et al, Breast Cancer Res Treat., 2016)
The study found that refined grain food intake may not be associated with the risk of breast cancer. However, they found that a nutrition/diet including brown rice consumption may be associated with a lower risk of overall and premenopausal breast cancer.
The researchers concluded that a high whole grain food intake may be associated with a lower risk of breast cancer before menopause.
A Hospital based Case-Control/Clinical Study in South Korea
In a study published in 2010, the researchers evaluated the association between the risk of breast cancer and total carbohydrate intake, glycemic load, and glycemic index (high levels indicate rapid blood sugar spikes), and different types of rice consumption in a hospital-based case-control/clinical study in South Korea. The study obtained food frequency questionnaire based dietary information from 362 breast cancer women who were aged between 30 to 65 years and their age and menopausal status matched controls who visited the Samsung Medical Center, Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, South Korea. (Sung Ha Yun et al, Asia Pac J Clin Nutr., 2010)
The analysis of results from this study found no association between breast cancer risk and diets rich in carbohydrate, glycemic index or glycemic load. However, the researchers found that a higher consumption of mixed brown rice may be associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer, especially in overweight, postmenopausal women.
Rice Bran Consumption and Colorectal cancer Risk
Whole grain brown rice and rice bran are rich in β-sitosterol, γ-oryzanol, vitamin E isoforms, prebiotics and dietary fibers. Different preclinical studies have suggested that fermented brown rice and rice bran have the potential to inhibit colorectal polyps and colorectal adenomas respectively. (Tantamango YM et al, Nutr Cancer., 2011; Norris L et al, Mol Nutr Food Res., 2015)
A study published in the Nutrition and Cancer Journal in 2016 also suggested that a diet/nutrition plan with increased dietary fiber intake by adding rice bran (from food sources such as brown rice) and navy bean powder to the meals may alter the gut microbiota in a way that can help in reducing the risk of colorectal cancer. The study further confirmed the feasibility of increasing the dietary fiber intake in colorectal cancer survivors by consuming rice bran rich foods such as brown rice, to reap these health benefits. (Erica C Borresen et al, Nutr Cancer., 2016)
These studies hint that a nutrition plan including rice bran intake from foods such as brown rice may be beneficial for reducing the risk of colorectal cancer. However, there is a need for further studies evaluating the inter-relationship between rice bran intake, the composition of gut microbiota and colorectal cancer prevention.
There is no strong evidence suggesting that taking moderate quantities of white rice may cause cancer. Different studies suggest that white rice intake may not be associated with the risk of cancer. Many of the studies mentioned above also gives us a hint that a nutrition plan including brown rice may be beneficial for reducing the risk of specific cancers such as breast and colorectal cancers. However, the researchers also suggested that brown rice may have more arsenic content than white rice. Hence, even though the study did not provide any clear evidence that regular rice consumption may contribute to the overall incidence of bladder cancer, the researchers suggested detailed research including larger studies, as they could not rule out the potential risks of brown rice consumption in the presence of elevated water arsenic (which may cause cancer). Another demerit of brown rice is that it contains phytic acid that may reduce the ability to absorb some nutrients by our body.
That said, when it comes to nutrition for cancer patients and for cancer prevention taking brown rice in moderate quantities is so far the best and healthier choice among different types of rice due to its nutritional quality and health benefits. Brown rice may also be considered healthy in cancer patients due to low glycemic starch content. Brown rice also contains lignans which may help in reducing the risk of heart diseases. However, taking white rice in small quantities also should not cause any harm.
“What should I eat?” is the most frequently asked question to cancer dieticians and physicians. The right answer depends upon cancer type, underlying genomics, current treatments, any allergies, lifestyle information, and factors like BMI.
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Cancer patients often have to deal with different chemotherapy side effects which affect their quality of life and look out for alternative therapies for cancer.Taking the right nutrition and supplements based on scientific considerations (avoiding guesswork and random selection) is the best natural remedy for cancer and treatment related side-effects.