When one thinks of the carbohydrate content of foods, there are two measures that often come to mind: the glycemic index and the glycemic load. Of these two, the first, the glycemic index, tends to get a lot more attention. Some would argue that the glycemic load is a lot more important, and that rice, as consumed in Asia, may provide a good illustration of that importance.
A 100-g portion of cooked rice will typically deliver 28 g of carbohydrates, with zero fiber, and 3 g of protein. By comparison, a 100-g portion of white Italian bread will contain 54 g of carbohydrates, with 4 g of fiber, and 10 g of protein – the latter in the form of gluten. A 100-g portion of baked white potato will have 21 g of carbohydrates, with 2 g of fiber, and 2 g of protein.
As you can see above, the amount of carbohydrate per gram in white rice is about half that of white bread. One of the reasons is that the water content in rice, as usually consumed, is comparable to that in fruits. Not surprisingly, rice’s glycemic load is 15 (medium), which is half the glycemic load of 30 (high) of white Italian bread. These refer to 100-g portions. The glycemic load of 100 g of baked white potato is 10 (low).
The glycemic load of a portion of food allows for the estimation of how much that portion of food raises a person's blood glucose level; with one unit of glycemic load being equivalent to the blood glucose effect of consumption of one gram of glucose.
Two common denominators between hunter-gatherer groups that consume a lot of carbohydrates and Asian populations that also consume a lot of carbohydrates are that: (a) their carbohydrate consumption apparently has no negative health effects; and (b) they consume carbohydrates from relatively low glycemic load sources.
The carbohydrate-rich foods consumed by hunter-gatherers are predominantly fruits and starchy tubers. For various Asian populations, it is predominantly white rice. As noted above, the water content of white rice, as usually consumed by Asian populations, is comparable to that of fruits. It also happens to be similar to that of cooked starchy tubers.
An analysis of the China Study II dataset, previously discussed here, suggests that widespread replacement of rice with wheat flour may have been a major source of problems in China during the 1980s and beyond ().
Even though rice is an industrialized seed-based food, the difference between its glycemic load and those of most industrialized carbohydrate-rich foods is large (). This applies to rice as usually consumed – as a vehicle for moisture or sauces that would otherwise remain on the plate. White rice combines this utilitarian purpose with a very low anti-nutrient content.
It is often said that white rice’s nutrient content is very low, but this problem can be easily overcome – a topic for the next post.