Health Benefits of Wild Rice

Because of its extraordinary nutritional benefit, wild rice forms a healthier choice than standard, processed rice.

Wild rice is actually a type of grass seed rather than a grain. Genuine wild rice is derived from an altogether different plant species than normal white or brown rice, both of which derive from the Oryza seed.

Wild rice comes from the Zizania grass seed. Because wild rice is expensive to buy, it is often bought mixed with normal white or brown rice.

Let’s talk history, nutritional benefits of wild rice, how best to prepare it, and possible risks in the following paragraphs.

History Of Wild Rice

Wild rice has been eaten by the indigenous populations of North America and China for thousands of years. It was an important food source for the Sioux and Chippewa Indians.

The Ojibwa regarded wild rice (which they called Manoomin (meaning “wild berry”) to be sacred. They had special rituals connected with the harvesting and preparation of wild rice, some of which are still used today.

It was given the name “wild rice” by early English settlers, although it was also sometimes known as Canadian rice, water oats, marsh oats and squaw rice.

In folk medicine, wild rice was used for centuries to treat a variety of illnesses ranging from digestive complaints to burns and even heart problems.

Because of its superior taste and nutritional value, wild rice grew in popularity and began to be grown commercially in the second part of the 20th century.

Today wild rice is grown commercially in Minnesota and California.

Types Of Wild Rice

Today there are four varieties of Zizania wild rice:

Palustris – This is an annual species. Known as Northern Wild Rice, it is native to the Mid-Western States of North America and Canada, particularly grown in the Great Lakes regions. It grows in water, to around 2 to 4 metres in height, and is difficult to cultivate. There are many different strains of this variety. Traditionally this rice was harvested by canoe and it is still possible to buy wild rice that is harvested using traditional methods.

Aquatica – This is an annual species. Known as Eastern Wild Rice, it is also native to areas of the U.S.. Today this variety, although edible is hardly ever harvested.

Texana – This is a perennial species. Texas Wild Rice used to be abundant in Texas , but is today quite rare.

Latifolia – This is a perennial species. Known as Manchurian Wild Rice, it originates in China. Manchurian Wild Rice is now almost extinct in native China.

Differences Between White, Brown & Wild

Wild rice has a slightly tough, chewy sheath and a soft, center with a nutty, earthy taste.

Authentic canoe-harvested wild rice has a color range from light to dark brown and sometimes has a slight green hue. It is more flavorsome than white or even brown rice and has a better and nutritional content than any other type of rice.

Most of the rice sold as “wild rice” today has actually been cultivated and is not technically “wild” at all. This machine-harvested wild rice tends to be darker on color and tougher than genuine wild rice.

Typical rice can take longer to cook than wild. (up to 60 minutes compared with 25-30 minutes for canoe-harvested wild rice.)

Cultivated rice comes from a different plant family to wild rice (the Oryza Sativa species of grass), and is less nutritionally rich than wild rice. According to the Rice Association (1) there are over 40,000 varieties of Oryza Sativa, which include:

  • Long grain white rice
  • Easy cook long-grain rice which has been steamed before milling
  • Brown long-grain (wholemeal) rice which has undergone reduced milling to white rice
  • Basmati rice, a variety of rice grown in India, Pakistan and the foothills of the Himalayas. It has a distinct aroma and the grains are less likely to stick together after cooking than most other varieties of cultivated rice.
  • Japonica rice which comes in a range of colors and is grown in California. This rice is popular in Caribbean cuisine.

Nutritional Content Of Wild Rice

Wild rice is gluten-free, and compared with grains is second only to oats in protein content. It has a higher protein, potassium and zinc content than any variety of brown or white rice. It is a good source of fiber, as well as a variety of minerals and vitamins. It is rich in antioxidant phytochemicals, and is a popular health food (2).

The table below shows the nutritional content of 100g, and of one cup (160g) of cooked, wild rice, according to a release from the National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28 May 2016 (3):

Nutrient Unit Amount per 100g Amount per cup (164g)
Water g 73.93 121.25
Energy kcal 101 166
Protein g 3.99 6.54
Total lipid (fat) g 0.34 0.56
Carbohydrate by difference g 21.34 35.00
Fiber g 1.8 3.0
Sugars g 0.73 1.20
Calcium mg 3 5
Iron mg 0.60 0.98
Magnesium mg 32 52
Phosphorous mg 82 134
Potassium mg 101 166
Sodium mg 3 5
Zinc mg 1.34 2.20
Vitamin C mg 0.0 0.0
Thiamin mg 0.052 0.085
Riboflavin mg 0.087 0.143
Niacin mg 1.287 2.111
Vitamin B6 mg 0.135 0.221
Folate µg 26 43
Vitamin B12 µg 0.00 0.00
Vitamin A, RAE µg 0.00 0.00
Vitamin A, IU IU 3 5
Vitamin E (alpha tocopherol) mg 0.24 0.39
Vitamin D µg 0.00 0.00
Vitamin K µg 0.5 0.8
Fatty acids, saturated g 0.049 0.080
Fatty acids, monounsaturated g 0.050 0.082
Fatty acids, polyunsaturated g 0.213 0.349
Cholesterol mg 0.00 0.00

Benefits Found By Scientific Research

Despite having been recognized in folk medicine for centuries, there have been relatively few scientific studies on the health benefits of eating wild rice. However, a 2012 study by Professor Daniel D. Gallaher, Ph.D. Department of Food Science and Nutrition University of Minnesota and Professor Mirko Chair of the Department of Food Chemistry and Phytochemistry Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – KIT (4, 5).

The Faculty of Chemistry and Biosciences, Institute of Applied Biosciences, reviewed published literature on the health properties of wild rice and reported their own findings. This and other studies have found the following insights into the possible health properties of wild rice:

  • Wild rice contains phytochemicals which have been found in the lab to have an antioxidant effect (6). A range of different projects to investigate further have been suggested.
  • The fact that in wild rice up to 2/3rds of the fatty acids are polyunsaturated may have health benefits on blood lipids.
  • Wild rice has such low levels of gluten that it can be classified as gluten-free and is therefore suitable for those with gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity.
  • One (unpublished) study on rats fed wild rice suggested a possible trend towards a lower risk of colon cancer. This is an area which requires more research.
  • Studies on rats have shown cholesterol-lowering properties in wild rice, which were not destroyed during the cooking process.
  • Wild rice has been shown to improve insulin resistance. This may be relevant to the treatment and management of type 2 diabetes.
  • One study showed wild rice to have a low glycemic index, suggesting that it may be a suitable food for persons needing to keep an eye on blood sugar levels, although more research needs to be done.

Can Wild Rice Be Good For The Heart?

In folk medicine wild rice has been used in the treatment of heart problems. Today, scientists claim that there is growing evidence of it having cardiovascular benefits and there have been calls for more studies into these properties (7).

Dangers With Wild Rice? (recommended cooking method to reduce risk)

Concern has been expressed about the levels of arsenic- a known carcinogen- in rice and rice products. The FDA monitors levels of arsenic in all varieties of rice and rice products (8, 9). Wild rice has been found to contain lower levels of arsenic to brown rice but higher levels than white Basmati rice (10).

To reduce the levels of arsenic in any type of rice it is recommended that rice be soaked overnight, rinsed before cooking and then cooked in the ratios one part rice to 5 parts water. The rice should then be rinsed again with hot water before serving. This method can reduce arsenic levels in rice by up to 80% (11).

Wild rice generally keeps very well, because of the low fat levels. However it is possible that the seeds can be infected with ergot- a toxic fungus. For this reason it is important to buy your wild rice from a reliable source and to store it in a cool, dry place. The risk of Ergot in cultivated rice from Minnesota is rare (12).