Are Rice Cakes a Healthy Snack?

They may not be as nutritious as you think

Rice cakes were big during the 80s and 90s as the new trend diet food. Health conscious people subbed out fattening cookies and chips with this crunchy, low-calorie snack. The cakes have been a weight loss staple ever since in the American diet.

The puffed round remains popular among adults and kids as a healthy snack option and comes in a variety of low-calorie flavors. Rice cakes may be marketed as a better choice to crackers and chips, but are they really nutritious?

Are Rice Cakes Healthy?

Rice cakes as a healthy snack remain questionable. There are conflicting messages from nutrition experts about the nutrients or lack thereof in the puffed product.

Rice cakes aren’t particularly nutrient dense, according to Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, CSSD, and National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

While rice cakes are low-calorie (35–60 kilocalories, depending on flavor) and contain about 11 grams of carbohydrate per rice cake, they don’t offer a lot of vitamins and minerals.

Pritchett does indicate they can be a good snack when paired with a nut butter spread and a piece of fruit. They also offer a gluten-free option for individuals with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.

The plus about rice cakes is that some are made with brown rice and low-calorie. They are also low in saturated fats and sugar depending on the variety purchased. This is certainly a better snack alternative than eating a bag of chips or crackers.

Rice Cakes Lack Nutrients

What appears to be lacking in rice cakes are nutrients. The primary reason is how the cakes are manufactured.

Rice cakes are made from white or brown rice subjected to very high heat and pressure causing the rice to expand like popcorn. The rice and bonding ingredients expand to fill a round mold and are spit out onto a conveyor belt to be sprayed with flavors and additives. They are then packaged for mass distribution.

Unfortunately, the high heat and pressure used on the grains remove most of the nutrients contained in the rice. What remains is a round, crunchy snack full of refined carbohydrates that are quickly digested and converted into sugar by the body.

High Glycemic Index Rating

Foods that convert into glucose (sugar) quickly by the body also rank high on the glycemic index. The glycemic index contains values assigned to foods based on how quickly or slowly those foods increase blood glucose levels. The glycemic index rating for rice cakes is approximately 87–91, compared to pure glucose at 100.

High glycemic foods may benefit muscle recovery post workout or provide energy for endurance runners, but are not the best choice for an individual diagnosed with diabetes.

Understanding the Glycemic Index of Many Common Foods

Craving Nothing But Crunch?

Rice cakes can have a place in an already healthy diet but not because they contain nutrient value. If you are craving something low-calorie and crunchy or looking for a bread alternative, they could be considered.

Eating rice cakes doesn’t hurt anything, according to Pritchett. Just pay attention to how many you may be eating and whether they are fulfilling your calorie needs for the snack. Rice cakes aren’t nutrient dense "as is," so it all depends on what you put on them.

Ingredients

Rice cakes contain rice, which is the reason most people think they are a healthy snack. The ingredients and how they are processed provide a different view about the product.

The primary ingredient in the low-calorie round is white rice. White rice is brown rice that has been stripped of its germ, bran, and husk to look more appealing. This process removes most nutrients and fiber from the rice.

Some rice cakes contain brown rice. This could be a healthier option if the product carries a “Whole-Grains” stamp. Whole grains contain complex carbohydrates, fiber, and minerals. However, all rice cakes including brown rice cakes remain high on the glycemic index.

Rice cakes are high in sodium ranging anywhere from 20–75 milligrams per cake. The American Heart Association recommends an ideal sodium intake of 1,500 milligrams and not to exceed 2,300 milligrams daily. Eating one rice cake would equate to 5 percent of your daily requirement and most people eat more than one at a serving. On average, Americans consume over 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily. It’s recommended to keep sodium intake low to improve blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Rice cakes contain sugar, additives, and preservatives. They are sprayed with a variety of flavors and sweeteners including strawberry, chocolate, caramel, cheese, salsa, and salt only. More additives increase the calories and sugar content of the product. A single rice cake can contain 4 grams of sugar and up to 80 calories depending on the ingredients. It’s recommended not to purchase any rice cakes that include artificial colors, flavors, sugar, or monosodium glutamate (msg).

Chemical compounds are found in rice cakes to some degree. It may not keep you from consuming the food, but it's good information to be aware of potential health risks. Rice cakes are shown to contain inorganic arsenic. One recent study indicated rice cakes consumed by adolescents and children contributed significantly to methylated arsenic (arsenic in urine). There is rising concern that certain methylated arsenic species may be cancer causing. 

Are They Processed?

Rice cakes are highly processed, contain refined carbohydrates, and lack nutrients. You are basically eating a round full of nothing.

Refined white rice is the primary ingredient in most rice cakes. Refined products remove nutrient value from foods including fiber and protein. 

An interesting food fact about rice cake processing is that nothing gets wasted. Cakes broken during processing are sold to cold cereal producers and used in candy bar ingredients. 

How to Boost Nutrient Value

Rice cakes lack nutrients but you can change that by adding healthy toppings. Pritchett recommends adding nut butter, cottage cheese, or salsa and cheese for extra protein. She also suggests topping them with avocado for healthy fats.

Plain brown rice cakes are the best choice for added toppings. You will gain crunch from the bland cake without added flavors to distract from what you put on the snack. Some people choose to use this variety as a bread substitute for a low-calorie sandwich.

Topping Ideas

You can transform your rice cake from nothing to nutritious by adding a few of the toppings below:

  • Peanut butter and banana (or any sliced fruit)
  • Almond or any nut butter, plain or drizzled with honey
  • Avocado and fresh ground pepper
  • Sliced boiled egg
  • Cottage cheese
  • Hummus and sliced peppers or other favorite veggie
  • Basil pesto and sliced grilled chicken
  • Organic pasta sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese and basil
  • Tuna and avocado

Choosing the Best Rice Cake

Rice cakes come in many varieties and most lack nutrient value. However, there are some rice cakes better than others and paying attention to nutrition labels is important. 

Pritchett recommends the following when choosing the best rice cake:

  • Look for varieties containing whole grain brown rice on the package
  • Pay attention to any added sugars that are in the flavored options
  • Look at the salt content and best to buy no salt varieties
  • Avoid cakes with artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives

Choose wisely, says Pritchett. For example, a chocolate rice cake has 60 kilocalories and 4 grams of sugar versus a plain rice cake with 35 kilocalories and 0 grams sugar.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to pay attention to how many rice cakes you consume, especially when eating salted and flavored varieties. Calories, sodium, and sugar can add up fast eating something light and airy. Plain, whole grain rice cakes would be your best option for topping and snacking. They can make a great crunchy base for a truly nutritious snack or even a mini meal when using healthy additions. 

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