Is Cauliflower Rice Actually Healthy?

Cauliflower rice is booming in popularity, but just how healthy is it?

As people continue to look for healthy alternatives to the modern American diet, a number of new foods have entered the mainstream lexicon.

One such addition? Cauliflower rice. I'd never even heard the term before a couple years ago, yet cauliflower rice can now be found in frozen food sections all over America. This summer, select Trader Joe's locations had to limit the amount of cauliflower rice customers could buy due to the product's extreme popularity. The rice industry also seems to be getting miffed over how much cauliflower rice is encroaching on their business.

But just because a food is trendy and supposedly healthy doesn't mean it's automatically nutritious. After all, most acai bowls are basically just glorified ice cream when it comes to their nutrition facts.

Is cauliflower rice another one of these faux healthy foods that wilts under the spotlight of closer investigation? Let's find out.

As far as I can tell, the widespread emergence of cauliflower rice directly correlates with the rise of the paleo diet and other carb-conscious eating trends. Why the connection between paleo and cauliflower rice? To understand that, you must understand the basics of the paleo diet.

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Proponents of the paleo diet argue that modern humans aren't so genetically different from humans who lived during the Paleolithic era (which spanned from approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago). Those Paleolithic humans typically ate lots of lean meats, fish, fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. But when farming was invented about 10,000 years ago, it drastically altered the average human diet. Many people began eating grains, legumes and dairy products on a daily basis, and that trend has continued to this day. Proponents of the paleo diet argue that such products became a huge part of the human diet well before our bodies had time to adapt to them, which has contributed to a myriad of public health issues.

"Farming changed what people ate and established dairy, grains and legumes as additional staples in the human diet. This relatively late and rapid change in diet, according to the hypothesis, outpaced the body's ability to adapt. This mismatch is believed to be a contributing factor to the prevalence of obesity, diabetes and heart disease today," the Mayo Clinic writes. While there are no long-term clinical studies regarding the benefits and potential risks of the diet, millions of Americans have gone paleo.

How does this relate to cauliflower rice? Well, rice is the third-most produced agricultural commodity in the world. It's also a grain. So for anyone following the paleo diet, traditional rice is a no-no. Rice is also high in carbohydrates (one cup of either white or brown rice contains 45 grams of total carbohydrate), making it difficult to incorporate in any low-carb diet. But many Americans are used to the presence of rice on their plate, so cutting it out can be difficult. That's where cauliflower rice comes into play.

Cauliflower rice is essentially nothing more than a low-carb, paleo-friendly substitute for traditional rice. In its most basic form, cauliflower rice is simply cauliflower that has been grated down into rice-like granules (typically with the use of a food processor). It can be eaten raw, but it's usually lightly cooked (often with a little olive oil or butter) to soften it up and create a texture more akin to traditional rice. You can make it yourself, or you can buy it pre-made at the grocery store. That's pretty much it.

Like most vegetables, cauliflower is supremely healthy. A cup of boiled cauliflower contains just 28 calories and 5 grams of total carbohydrate, yet 10% the recommended daily value (RDV) of fiber, 10% the RDV of vitamin B-6 and 90% the RDV of vitamin C.

A diet high in fiber has numerous benefits. According to the Mayo Clinic, fiber helps to normalize bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar, maintain bowel health and aid in achieving a healthy weight. The Harvard School of Public Health states that fiber appears to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Fiber also slows down digestion, which helps you feel fuller for longer after you eat. Vitamin B-6 is crucial for brain development and proper nervous and immune system function. Vitamin C helps form protein to make skin, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels. It helps repair bones, cartilage and teeth. It aids in the absorption of iron and it helps heal wounds and make scar tissue. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, meaning it battles the internal damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals may play a role in heart disease, cancer and conditions like arthritis.

Cauliflower is also what's known as a cruciferous vegetable. Other cruciferous veggies include broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts and cabbage. Cruciferous vegetables are some of the healthiest foods a human can eat. A 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that greater consumption of cruciferous vegetables was associated with lower concentrations of pro-inflammatory markers in the body. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a variety of ailments, including heart diseases. It's believed that cruciferous vegetable's inflammation-fighting powers are due to their high content of isothiocyanates.

So cauliflower itself is undoubtedly healthy. Since cauliflower rice is almost entirely composed of cauliflower, that's great news. Cooking cauliflower rice in a bit of olive oil or butter isn't nearly detrimental enough to significantly drag down the nutrition of the overall dish, and neither is adding a pinch of seasoning. While it's always preferable to make your own food, the nutrition of most pre-packaged cauliflower rice products looks to be on point, as well. Green Giant's current cauliflower rice offerings, for example, look to have very simple ingredient lists and rock solid nutrition.

Cauliflower rice is a high-fiber, low-carb alternative to real rice that's also packed with a number of antioxidants and vitamins. It's an incredibly simple dish, which is always a good sign for a food's nutrition. Cauliflower rice is a far cry from the ultra-processed foods that make up the majority of the calories in the average American diet. The only situations where I can imagine cauliflower rice veering more toward junk food is if additions like fried foods, high-sugar sauces, etc. are added into it. When in doubt, always check the ingredients. Or better yet, stick to making your own if possible.

Photo Credit: ALLEKO/iStock, alantobey/iStock

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Topics: FIBER | HEALTHY EATING | CARBOHYDRATES | VEGETABLES | CAULIFLOWER | EATING HEALTHY | PALEO DIET | GOOD NUTRITION | NUTRITION ADVICE