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Rice is the most popular grain worldwide, feeding over half of the globe, according to the USA Rice Federation. In the U.S., consumption of this gluten-free grain has doubled over the last three decades, to more than 25 pounds per person per year. This is good news, as scientists report rice is tied to many health benefits.

Research examining the dietary patterns of U.S. rice eaters reveals they tend to make healthier choices than non-rice eaters. A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that compared to non-rice eaters, rice eaters had higher intakes of vegetables, fiber, iron and potassium, with lower intakes of total fat and saturated fat. The results of the study aren’t surprising to nutrition experts; you don’t usually eat rice all by itself.

Most rice eaters in the U.S. choose refined white rice, with a mere 1.3 percent opting for whole grain brown rice, said Julie Jones, professor at St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn., and an international expert on grains. Brown rice is considered a healthier choice because the nutrient-rich germ and bran components are intact. They are removed in the refinement of white rice. Enriched white rice offers essential B-vitamins and iron, but whole grain rice contains more fiber, minerals and phytonutrients. One such phytonutrient in whole grain rice is oryzanol, which may have an important impact on lowering cholesterol, according to Jones.

Dr. Michio Shimabukuro, professor at the University of Tokushima and co-author of a review on oryzanol and brown rice published recently in “Obesity Research and Clinical Practice,” goes further: “Oryzanol exerts a variety of biological effects, including cholesterol-lowering, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-diabetic and antioxidant activities.” He reports that brown rice and oryzanol could play a role in treating obesity.

Enjoy brown rice with steamed or stir-fried vegetables, in soups and salads, or top with fruit and milk for a brown rice breakfast. And know that rice goes far beyond brown and white. The USA Rice Federation asserts there are more than 120,000 varieties, categorized by grain size – short, medium and long – as well as color and aroma. Among them:

1. Arborio: Named after the Italian town from where it originates, this typically refined white rice is traditionally used to make risotto. When cooked, it releases starch, yielding a creamy consistency. Arborio rice itself is bland but absorbs flavors exceptionally well.

2. Jade or bamboo: A white rice that has been dyed green with bamboo juice, jade rice is short to medium grain and has a sticky texture. You may see it added to sushi rice for a splash of color. It has a subtle flavor of green tea.

3. Basamati: Common in Indian cuisine, this long grain variety that gives off a flavor and aroma reminiscent of popcorn or roasted nuts; it can be found as a white or a whole grain rice and works well for pilaf, stuffing, salads or entrees.

4. Jasmine: Another aromatic long grain rice, it hails from Thailand. Great for curries or as a side dish, it has a mild flavor sometimes described as nutty or slightly sweet. Look for whole grain (brown) jasmine rice.

5. Glutinous: Also referred to as “sticky rice,” the short grains of this variety are plump and almost round; can be purchased as refined white or intact as a whole grain. It is perfect for sushi or desserts, such as the Asian delicacy, mochi.

6. Wild: Whole grain wild rice is from a different plant species than all other rice varieties, but is still a grain. It has a hardy flavor with a chewy texture; add to soups and salads for a gourmet flair.

Andrea N. Giancoli is a registered dietitian.