Most of us know that brown rice is healthier than white rice, because of its nutritional content (1). To see all of the healthful nutrients found in brown rice and a comparison of other rice varieties, see our article “World’s Healthiest Rice Varieties.”
Brown rice has antioxidants and other phenolic compounds that fight disease (2), and has even been shown to reduce blood glucose levels after eating (3), preventing diabetes and metabolic disorders. But, is brown rice always the best choice, or is quinoa a better option?
Quinoa is a relatively new carbohydrate choice that is, in some ways, very similar to rice. Both are high in protein and abundant in healthy nutrients, but when having to choose, is quinoa better than brown rice? Quinoa is technically a seed from the Goosefoot plant (4) while rice is a grain, but rice and quinoa are typically counted in the same foot category because of their carbohydrate content and starchy qualities.
Calories, fiber, and overall nutrients
In terms of basic calories, quinoa is slightly higher than brown rice, containing 222 calories per cup (brown rice contains 218 calories per cup).
Brown rice and quinoa come in almost identical in terms of dietary fiber, with brown rice containing ~6 grams per cup and quinoa containing ~5 grams per cup.
In terms of nutrients, many of the same nutrients can be found in both quinoa and brown rice including magnesium, potassium, and zinc (5).
Lipids and amino acids
While there are lipids (fats) found in both brown rice and quinoa, the fats found in quinoa, including linoleic acid and oleic acid, have been noted to have beneficial effects on human health (6). Linoleic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid, which can regulate inflammation and is essential for growth (7).
Oleic acid is also an omega-6 fatty acid (8), which improves blood circulation and insulin sensitivity (a right choice for diabetes prevention).
Quinoa differs significantly from brown rice in its amino acid content. Unlike rice, which contains only some amino acids, quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids that our body needs to function.
This makes quinoa a complete amino acid source, fulfilling the adult health requirement for these nutritious building blocks (9). Rice is called a “partial” amino acid source, as it contains some of these nutrients, but not all.
Antioxidants and polyphenols
Antioxidants and polyphenols are disease-fighting compounds because they can get rid of free oxygen radicals, which are produced as a by-product of our metabolism.
A buildup of these free oxygen radicals can cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and chronic inflammation.
Polyphenols, also known as phenolic compounds, in quinoa include gallic acid and quercetin (10), and a serving of quinoa provides more antioxidant micronutrients than brown rice.
This is another category in which quinoa comes out on top. Brown rice contains little to no saponins (some varieties have trace amounts), but that is not the case for quinoa.
Saponins are natural compounds found in a variety of plants, primarily beans and seeds, that can decrease cancer risk, blood glucose fluctuations, dental problems, and renal disease (11). Quinoa seeds are the part of the plant highest in saponins (which is excellent news, because this is the part we eat). The high saponin content likely contributes to the antioxidant effects noted for quinoa (12).
Carbohydrates and protein
Carbohydrate content is a double-edged sword, and two things must be considered when talking about it. The overall carbohydrate content of rice versus quinoa is essential, but this also must be combined with the protein and fiber levels, which can slow the absorption of carbohydrates.
Quinoa contains approximately 641.6 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram, compared to rice containing 496.9 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram (13). But, quinoa is higher in protein, containing 8 grams per cup (compared to rice with only 4–5 grams per cup).
So, while quinoa is higher in carbohydrates, they are absorbed more slowly, which results in fewer blood glucose fluctuations. This is healthy for diabetics and can prevent the development of type 2 diabetes.
Ethical and sustainability considerations of rice and quinoa
Rice has been a long-standing staple in many countries (14), and there are specific things to look for when you purchase rice. Look for rice that is sustainably sourced, meaning it contributes less to climate change and global warming.
You can also seek out rice sources that have the “Fairtrade” symbol, which means they are grown by workers who are fairly compensated for their work and crop. Avoid rice sources that are grown using high levels of chemicals (e.g., pesticides and herbicides) and plastic packaging (e.g., individually packaged portions).
By doing these things, you can reduce your harmful chemical intake and the impact on the environment.Quinoa has become a health food staple overnight (15). The problem with this is that as demand has increased, the price has also skyrocketed.
While quinoa is a hardy crop and grows well in a variety of environments, pesticides and fertilizers are often overused to ensure a good harvest, and high chemical and plastic footprints of grocery store products are common.
Keep the same considerations in mind as you do with rice, and make sure you buy fair-trade, low-plastic, low-chemical, economically sourced quinoa whenever possible.
The good news
You really cannot go wrong with either brown rice (16) or quinoa (17). When pitted against each other, quinoa comes out on top in terms of health-maintaining nutrients and disease-fighting ingredients. But brown rice and quinoa both contain a wealth of healthy components and should both be a consistent part of your diet.