How Sweet It Is! Part 3: Brown Rice Syrup

By Keith Block MD


Brown rice syrup is made by treating cooked brown rice with enzymes that break down starches.  The resulting syrup is composed of soluble carbohydrates and lesser amounts of the simple sugars maltose and glucose.  Brown rice syrup is a good sweetener for many people because it has a low glycemic index (The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a sweetener is absorbed into the bloodstream.  Sweeteners that are absorbed quickly can raise blood sugar and are considered unhealthful).  Glucose is generally used as the standard for a quickly-absorbed sugar, and is given a glycemic index (GI) of 100.  Foods with GIs of 70 or higher are considered to have a high GI; a medium GI is 56 to 69, and a low GI is 55 and under.  Examples of high GI foods include white potatoes, white rice and white bread.  Brown rice syrup reportedly has a GI of about 25.  It appears that the carbohydrates may slow the absorption of the glucose and maltose, giving it its low GI.


Is brown rice syrup safe?

Concerns have been raised about arsenic in rice syrup, since rice naturally absorbs arsenic from the soil.  However, as we have noted elsewhere, there have never been reported concerns with health effects of rice on populations that eat large amounts of it – the main concern with arsenic poisoning from food and drink is in areas such as Bangladesh, that have naturally high levels of arsenic in the water.  In the US, different regions of the country contain varying levels of soil arsenic and are known to be lower in California than in the Southeastern US. 


As with all of these sweeteners, I recommend using rice syrup sensibly – less than 5 servings per day – and alternating the use of brown rice syrup with stevia, agave, and other recommended natural sweeteners.


Brown rice syrup has been used in natural foods cooking for many years because of its slow absorption.  It is easily tolerated by most people sensitive to sugars and does not give a “sugar buzz” or cause the highs and lows that table sugar (sucrose) does for many people.  We have worked with many diabetics over the years who have safely included brown rice syrup in their diets.  But everyone is different, and because brown rice syrup does contain some simple sugars, diabetics should test its effects on their blood sugar before using it. 


How can I use brown rice syrup?

Brown rice syrup has a thick consistency, a little thinner than honey or molasses.  Some brands have a distinctive caramel-like flavor that appeals to some people.  It is about half as sweet as table sugar and can be used in cooking.  It would be a good idea to start with recipes that have been developed specifically to use brown rice syrup.  If you want to convert a recipe that calls for the use of sugar, use 1 ¼ cups brown rice syrup for every cup of sugar, and decrease the other liquids in the recipe by one half.  Brown rice syrup is available in retail stores such as Whole Foods.   


In our next blog post we’ll take a look at sugar alcohols, including xylitol and sorbitol.

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