Grains Explained, Is Rice Gluten-Free?

Gluten is a family of proteins found in some, but not all, grains. For many people, a gluten-free diet can be a lifestyle choice. However, for people with celiac disease, it is a medical necessity.

Gluten has become a controversial subject. On the one hand, many researchers agree that gluten is safe for everyone except those with celiac disease. On the contrary, some experts suggest that gluten could be harmful to most people.

Gluten is found in barley, wheat, rye, and triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye. Gluten helps foods, such as bread, pasta, and cereal, keep their shape by acting as a “glue.”

There are several gluten-free grains available that can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. Is rice one of them?

Is rice gluten-free?

Rice
All rice is naturally gluten-free. However, grains or rice-based products may not be gluten-free.

Rice is a grain. Are all grains gluten-free? No. Is rice gluten-free? Yes.

All rice is naturally gluten-free. This includes all varieties: white rice, brown rice, and wild rice. Even glutinous rice is gluten-free, despite the name. “Glutinous” refers to the sticky nature of the rice and not the glue-like gluten protein in wheat, barley, and rye.

Many gluten-free products substitute wheat with rice. However, while all rice in its natural form is gluten-free, that does not mean that all rice and rice-based products are gluten-free.

If in doubt, people should check the label on the packaging or contact the manufacturer for more information.

Cross-contact

Rice can sometimes come into contact with barley, wheat, or rye in the growing, harvesting, or manufacturing processes — this is called cross-contact, previously known as cross-contamination.

Cross-contact of rice and gluten can also occur at home in places where shared utensils and cooking areas are used for preparing both gluten-free foods and foods containing gluten. These places include:

  • colanders
  • shared containers
  • condiments

Wheat flour can also stay airborne for many hours and contaminate surfaces, utensils, and uncovered foods.

Thorough cleaning usually prevents cross-contact.

People should beware of gluten-free goods from bakeries that sell foods containing gluten, and bulk bins at grocery stores.

If a person has celiac disease and they are unable to confirm the ingredients in a food item, it is best to avoid eating the food.

For people with gluten-related disorders, cutting out foods that contain gluten from their diet is the only known way to prevent damage to the lining of the intestines and other associated symptoms.

Rice-based products

Just because a rice-based product is advertised as “rice” does not mean that it is gluten-free. Rice-based products are often made with spices, sauces, and other ingredients that may contain gluten.

Flavored rice frequently contains a wheat-based thickener called hydrolyzed wheat protein. Flavored rice may also contain flavor enhancers such as soy sauce, which is not typically gluten-free but can be substituted with tamari. Rice pilaf is made with orzo, which is also not gluten-free.

People with gluten-related disorders should only eat rice-based products that are labeled with “gluten-free.” They should avoid products that are labeled with “contains wheat,” or list any ingredients that contain gluten.

People should also avoid products that are grain-based or made on shared equipment with wheat or gluten. Just because a product is “wheat-free,” does not mean that it is automatically gluten-free.

Is rice a safe gluten-free alternative?

healthful foods
Eating a range of healthful foods is recommended, especially when removing gluten from the diet.

Starchy foods are a major source of carbohydrates and play an important part in a healthful diet. As with any food group, it is essential that people include a variety of carbohydrates in their diet to ensure that they consume a wide range of nutrients.

A person on a gluten-free diet, who bulks up with rice and rice-based products, particularly white rice, can deprive their body of important nutrients.

Many products that are made with wheat flour are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Often, by cutting out wheat or not eating a variety of grains, people can be left short of:

  • calcium
  • fiber
  • folate
  • iron
  • niacin
  • riboflavin
  • thiamin

When removing gluten from their diet, people should be sure to eat a range of healthful foods, including plenty of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Arsenic found in rice

There are two types of arsenic. The first type, organic arsenic, is relatively nontoxic. However, the second type, called inorganic arsenic, is more toxic.

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), rice tends to accumulate more arsenic than other food crops. In fact, rice is thought to be the largest food source of inorganic arsenic.

The level of arsenic in the diet is usually relatively low and does not often cause symptoms of poisoning. However, ingesting inorganic arsenic over a long period may make a person more likely to develop chronic diseases, which include:

  • blockage or narrowing of blood vessels
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • various types of cancer

As arsenic is toxic to nerve cells, it may affect brain function. In children and teenagers, exposure to arsenic may impair concentration, learning, and memory, and reduce intelligence and social skills.

Arsenic may cause health problems in people who eat significant amounts of rice and rice-based products daily.

Going gluten-free does not mean that a person’s diet has to be dominated by rice. People should include a range of different foods in their diet to ensure they take in a variety of nutrients. This also prevents people getting too much of one food — in this case, too much arsenic.

Nutritional facts

Rice is mostly composed of carbohydrates, with a small amount of protein and almost no fat.

Brown rice

Brown or whole grain rice is a good source of fiber and contains many vitamins and minerals in the bran and germ. It may also be a good source of the antioxidants phytic acid, ferulic acid, and lignans.

Eating brown rice and other whole grains may have a beneficial effect on heart health. Brown rice is considered a low-glycemic food and may help control blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes.

Brown rice may help regulate bowel function and may also be helpful in preventing cancers, such as colon cancer, leukemia, and breast cancer.

White rice

White rice is a product of brown rice. It is made by removing the bran and the germ of the brown rice through the process of milling. This is done to increase its shelf life and tastiness.

However, milling strips the rice of valuable nutrients, such as dietary fiber, essential fatty acids, B vitamins, iron, and other nutrients.

White rice may cause a spike in blood sugar levels, which can be unhealthy for people with diabetes.

Apart from providing basic nutrients and energy, white rice has no real benefit to health.

Wild rice

Wild rice is not actually rice. Despite being called rice, wild rice describes the grain that is harvested from four species of grass.

Wild rice is higher in protein, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber than white rice, and is low in fat. Wild rice is a good source of B vitamins.

Incorporating wild rice into the diet may provide the following health benefits:

  • help protect heart health
  • aid digestive processes
  • boost the immune system with vitamin C
  • lower the chances of certain conditions, such as cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and some cancers

Alternative grains and carbohydrates

Rice is not the only gluten-free source of grain. There are many gluten-free grains, starches, and other foods that can be eaten as part of a healthy balanced diet.

These include:

Quinoa
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a popular alternative to rice that is also gluten-free.
  • amaranth
  • arrowroot
  • beans
  • buckwheat groats
  • cassava
  • chia
  • flax
  • maize
  • millet
  • nut flours
  • gluten-free oats
  • potato
  • quinoa
  • sorghum
  • soy
  • tapioca
  • teff
  • yucca

Some of the lesser-known grain varieties may need to be purchased from a health food store.

Gluten-containing grains to avoid

The following grains and their derivatives contain gluten and should be avoided by people with gluten-related disorders:

  • barley
  • brewer’s yeast
  • durum
  • einkorn wheat
  • emmer
  • farina
  • farro
  • graham
  • KAMUT Khorasan wheat
  • malt
  • rye
  • semolina
  • spelt
  • triticale
  • wheat
  • wheatberries

Wheat starch contains gluten. However, some wheat starch is processed to remove gluten.

According to the FDA, a food containing wheat starch may only be labeled as “gluten-free” if the product is processed to have below 20 parts per million of gluten.

Bottom line

All forms of natural rice are gluten-free and some forms of rice-based products are also gluten-free. People should always make sure to check the labels on any products to ensure the food is gluten-free and has not come into contact with foods that contain gluten.

Eating a variety of grains and high-fiber carbohydrates as part of a gluten-free diet, rather than relying just on rice, can help prevent health concerns associated with arsenic and ensure a diet filled with a balance of nutrients.