There’s a new superfood in town: black rice, aka “forbidden rice." Now even Walmart carries the stuff, which first made a spash in 2010 when a study suggested that it packs as many antioxidants as blueberries. But is it worth the hype?
To find an answer, you’ll need to compare it to other grains, starting with brown rice: “Black has a nutrition profile that’s very similar to brown rice,” says nutritionist Jessica Cording. “They both provide fiber and some iron, but black rice has more vitamin E in it, which is an important fat-soluble vitamin.” (Meaning you need to pair it with a source of fat like avocados or olive oil in order for your body to absorb it.)
Antioxidant vitamin E helps prevent cell damage in the body, protects eyesight, and boosts the immune system, some research suggests.
In addition, a study on mice suggests black rice might have anti-inflammatory benefits, and it has a similar fiber content but fewer calories than brown rice, roughly 160 per serving compared to a little over 200 in brown, Cording says.
But where black rice really stands out is its anthocyanin content. In case you didn’t know, that’s one of the most powerful types of antioxidants, that may play a role in promoting good health.
“The bran hull of black rice contains one of the highest levels of anthocyanin, found in food,” says Wesley Delbridge, a nutritionist and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This pigment is the same stuff that gives blueberries its color and black rice its rich, deep hue. “What sets it apart from brown rice is this high concentration of anthocyanin pigments, which are fantastic antioxidants.” Not everyone agrees what it does and how it does it. These compounds are also the possible mechanism behind black rice’s apparent ability to reduce cholesterol levels, according to a 2013 study published in Food & Function.
“Black rice, along with red and purple rice, have significantly more antioxidants than white rice and have been shown to improve cholesterol profiles,” says nutritionist Julieanna Hever, author of The Vegiterranean Diet. “However, these studies have been done in a lab and haven’t yet been tested in humans.”
Experts say that even in terms of antioxidants, many of those compounds work differently in the body, so it’s best to get a wide variety, as it is for food in general.
“Overall, black rice, like brown, has a higher fiber content than white rice, which means it is digested slower and adds more soluble fiber to the diet, which can lower cholesterol,” Delbridge says. “It has a little more protein and iron than brown rice.”
It's worth noting that like brown rice, black rice will have higher arsenic levels than white if they're grown in contaminated soils. To be safe, be sure to cook it with a higher water-to-rice ratio (arsenic is water soluble) and avoid rice grown in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and China.