Are Rice Cakes Actually Nutritious?

Rice cakes with avocado

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

In the 80s and 90s, rice cakes were the hot new trend in "diet food." They have been a weight loss staple ever since. People loved the combination of crunch in a low-calorie carb—and many are still fans for this reason today.

The puffed rice round crackers remain popular among adults and kids as an easy snack option and come in a variety of low-calorie flavors. Many health-conscious people routinely use rice cakes in place of higher-calorie options like bread, cookies, crackers, and chips.

However, nutrition experts are less enthusiastic. Rice cakes may be marketed as a better choice, but are they really nutritious? Below, we investigate the pros and cons of this crunchy, low-fat snack.

Rice Cakes Nutrition

Whether or not rice cakes are a healthy snack is questionable. First off, they are low in calories and fat and offer a healthier crunch than many less healthy snack foods, such as potato chips. However, aside from the lower calorie content, they are pretty much devoid of anything else.

Rice cakes aren’t particularly nutrient-dense, according to Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., RD, CSSD, and National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While rice cakes don't pack a lot of calories, they also don't offer much much nutritional value.

While rice cakes are low in calories (35 to 60 calories, depending on the 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 people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.

Another positive about rice cakes is that some are made with brown rice, which does offer a minor nutrient boost. They are also low in saturated fats and sugar depending on the variety you choose.

Stripped of Most Nutrients

What is most lacking in rice cakes are nutrients, which is primarily due to how rice cakes are manufactured.

Rice cakes are made from white or brown rice that is subjected to very high heat and pressure causing the rice to expand like popcorn. The rice and bonding ingredients expand to fill round molds 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 naturally 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.

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 ranges from approximately 70 to 90, depending on the brand. This is very high when you consider that pure glucose comes in at 100.

High glycemic foods may benefit muscle recovery post-workout or provide quick energy for endurance runners, but are not the best choice for a person diagnosed with diabetes or for those who want to avoid the "sugar crash" that often comes after consuming foods with a high glucose content.

However, the drawback of rice cakes' high glycemic index rating can be somewhat alleviated by eating the snack with protein (such as hummus or nut butter), which can help stabilize blood sugar and energy levels.

Craving Crunch

The biggest benefit of rice cakes is their ability to deliver a low-calorie crunch. Just remember that they have limited nutritional value—and watch the ingredient label on your brand of choice as the salt and additive contents vary widely. That said, rice cakes can still be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet, especially as a low-calorie alternative to less healthy crunchy snacks.

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 and nutrition needs for the snack. Rice cakes aren’t nutrient-dense when eaten plain, so it all depends on what you pair with them.

Ingredients Matter

Rice cakes contain rice, which is the reason most people think they are a healthy snack. The primary ingredients used (such as brown or white rice) and how they are processed varies from brand to brand, making some products relatively healthier than others.

White vs. Brown Rice Cakes

Most commonly, the primary ingredient in rice cakes is white rice. White rice is brown rice that has been stripped of its germ, bran, and husk to look more appealing and for quicker cooking. This process removes most nutrients and fiber from the rice.

But some rice cake products contain brown rice, which is likely a slightly 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 and as described above, most of the nutrient value (of the brown or white rice) is lost in the cooking process.

Sodium Content

Rice cakes are often high in sodium, ranging anywhere from 20 to 75 milligrams per cake. It’s recommended to keep sodium intake low to improve blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends an ideal sodium intake of 1,500 milligrams and not more than 2,300 milligrams daily. Eating just one rice cake would equate to 5% of your daily requirement. On average, Americans consume over 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily.

Other Additives

Many rice cakes also contain sugar, additives, and preservatives. They may be sprayed with a variety of sweet or savory flavors including strawberry, chocolate, caramel, cheese, salsa, seaweed, or simply salt. More additives usually 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 extra ingredients.

Chemical compounds are also found in rice cakes to some degree. Rice cakes are shown to contain low levels of inorganic arsenic. One 2014 study indicated that rice cakes consumed by adolescents and children contributed significantly to methylated arsenic (arsenic in urine). There is a rising concern that certain methylated arsenic species may be cancer-causing as well. 

How to Boost Nutrient Value

Rice cakes lack nutrients on their own but you can change the nutritional value of your snack 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. You can also try plain rice cakes as a bread substitute for a lower-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 another favorite veggie)
  • Basil pesto and sliced grilled chicken
  • Pasta sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese and basil
  • Tuna and avocado

Healthier Rice Cakes

Rice cakes come in many varieties and most lack nutrient value. However, some rice cakes are far healthier than others, and paying attention to nutrition labels is the key to determining which product is best for you. 

Pritchett recommends the following when choosing a rice cake brand:

  • Look for varieties containing whole grain brown rice.
  • Pay attention to any added sugars in the flavored products or opt for no added flavor.
  • Look at the salt content and aim to buy no or low salt varieties.
  • Avoid cakes with artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.

Keep in mind that additives and flavoring can more than double calorie or sugar content. For example, a chocolate rice cake has 60 calories and 4 grams of sugar versus a plain rice cake with 35 calories and 0 grams of sugar.

A Word From Verywell

At their most basic, rice cakes are highly processed, contain refined carbohydrates, and lack nutrients. So, while the occasional rice cake is nothing to worry about, it's important to pay attention to how many you consume, especially when eating heavily salted and flavored varieties (Calories, sodium, and sugar can add up fast when eating something light and crunchy.)

The healthiest option for topping and snacking are plain, whole grain rice cakes, which can make a great crunchy base for a nutritious snack or even a mini-meal when using healthy additions. 

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Article Sources
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