Is Brown Rice Syrup Healthier Than Sugar?

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Here we go again. Two years ago it was agave nectar; now it’s brown rice syrup. As I have been seeing more and more questions on this hot sugar substitute on our Facebook page, I knew I should write up a proper piece to answer these concerns.

Nutrition Data for Brown Rice Syrup

Also known as rice malt syrup, brown rice syrup is made with whole grain rice subjected to an enzymatic reaction. This process breaks down the starches in the rice, and the simpler sugar (maltose and maltotriose) is separated in liquid format. This liquid is then boiled down into syrup.

  • Calories per Tbsp: 75
  • Glycemic Index: 98 (High)
  • Gluten Free? Yes
  • Vegan? Yes

Our Facebook fans often ask if brown rice syrup is healthier than white sugar. I feel that it’s not a fair comparison: one is a liquid and the other is crystal. But I still have to answer the question, so here is the comparison. Contrary to popular belief, brown rice syrup’s glycemic index is actually higher than that of table sugar. Brown rice syrup also provides more calories than white sugar (75 vs. 42 per tablespoon). As brown rice syrup is not as sweet as sugar, fans have told us that they often substitute 1.25 cups brown rice syrup for 1 cup sugar in recipes. That’s not good news – it means the final baked products will actually have much higher calories with the switch in sweetener.

To be fair, brown rice syrup should be compared with another nectar-like sweetener, like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn syrup, honey, or maple syrup. Similar to other natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey, brown rice syrup contains some trace minerals like magnesium, zinc, and manganese. I don’t find that brown rice syrup has any advantages over, let’s say, maple syrup (maple syrup actually has a much lower glycemic index of 54). Of course, HFCS is the exception. Almost any natural sweetener is better than HFCS, period.

Brown Rice Syrup and Arsenic

It’s known that some levels of arsenic are present in rice sources, as this metal is absorbed through the soil in rice plants. As a result, the UK Food Standards Agency actually recommended that toddlers not drink rice drinks in 2009. In North America, researchers from Dartmouth University found in a 2012 study that organic packaged foods sweetened with organic brown rice syrup contained high levels of arsenic. One of the infant formulas tested actually exceeded six times the EPA’s 10 parts per billion standard. Other products like organic cereal bars also contained much higher arsenic levels than those without brown rice syrup.

Obviously, rice is not the only plant containing arsenic. And, not all brown rice syrup contains high levels of arsenic either. If you’re a brown rice syrup user, purchase a trusted brand, like Lundberg, that is open in the arsenic-testing process.

What Do I Do?

Honestly, healthy eating is not about switching one sweetener for another. It’s about eating more whole foods, less processed food, and less total sugar.


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