Rice Bran Oil: Health Benefits, Downsides & How It Compares To Other Options
Even if you don't consider yourself to be much of a chef, your kitchen pantry is likely stocked with multiple cooking oils for sautéing, dressing, and baking.
To help you decide if lesser-used rice bran oil is worth adding to your rotation of healthy cooking oils, we investigated the latest research and asked a rice bran expert to break down the ingredient's benefits, downsides, environmental impact, and nutrition profile.
What is rice bran oil?
As you may be able to guess by the name, rice bran oil is the oil derived from rice bran, the hard outer layer of brown rice that's removed to create white rice, says Elizabeth Ryan, Ph.D., a rice bran researcher and professor at the University of Colorado.
Once the bran (which would likely otherwise go to waste) is removed, its oil is typically extracted using chemical solvents. There are other technologies to extract the oil as well, including expeller pressing and supercritical fluid, which involves using high-pressure carbon dioxide to remove the bran, says Ryan.
Once extracted, rice bran oil is then refined to remove waxes and free fatty acids, which often burn and smoke when heated, to make it suitable for cooking.
Rice bran oil is largely produced1 in Thailand and India, and it's a popular cooking oil in many Asian countries2, including Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia. Since it has a smoke point of 490 degrees Fahrenheit—one of the highest of all cooking oils—and a neutral yet slightly nutty flavor, rice bran oil is useful for frying and baking, says Ryan. It's also a popular ingredient for stir-fries.
The oil can act as an emulsifier and prolong shelf life, so it's also found in highly processed foods.
Here's the nutritional breakdown of 1 tablespoon of rice bran oil, according to the USDA3:
- Calories: 120
- Fat: 13.6 grams
- Saturated fat: 2.68 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 5.34 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 4.76 grams
- Vitamin E: 4.39 milligrams
The exact nutritional composition of rice bran oil varies, depending on the type of rice used, says Ryan. In general, though, rice bran oil's fatty acid makeup4 is about 47% monounsaturated fat, 33% polyunsaturated fat, and 20% saturated fat.
While you need to consume all varieties of fat for energy and to help the body absorb specific vitamins, consuming too much saturated fat can increase levels of low-density lipoprotein (aka LDL, or "bad") cholesterol, raising the risk for heart disease and stroke5.
On the other hand, consuming unsaturated fat—including polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats—in place of saturated fat can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease6.
The omega-6 fatty acids found in polyunsaturated fats have long been thought to promote inflammation, but researchers now recognize that what's most important is consuming a balanced ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats. Rice bran oil has a higher proportion of omega-6s than omega-3s.
Types of rice bran oil.
Because of the aforementioned waxes and free fatty acids found in crude rice bran oil, all rice bran oil found in food products and in the grocery store aisle is refined, says Ryan. Unlike olive oil, there aren't multiple grades, such as virgin and extra virgin, of rice bran oil, she adds.
Still, there are a few forms of refined rice bran oil you may see in specialty markets.
- Organic: Based on the USDA's standards, the rice used to create organic rice bran oil is grown without synthetic fertilizers and genetic engineering. Soil fertility, crop nutrients, and pests are instead managed with natural practices, such as tillage, crop rotations, and organic, nonsynthetic pesticides.
- Expeller-pressed: Rice bran oil producers are not required to disclose extraction details, says Ryan, but some may choose to list "expeller pressed" on their product labels. This mechanical extraction method involves pressing the oil out of the bran with a machine and doesn't rely on chemical solvents, which are often petroleum-based7 and may be environmentally harmful8.
Health benefits of rice bran oil:
It may improve heart health in moderation.
Thanks to its unsaturated fat content, rice bran oil may lower cholesterol levels, helping to reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke, says Ryan.
In fact, a 2022 review of eight studies9 found that consuming rice bran oil can "significantly decrease" total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
Rice bran oil's phytosterols2—plant-derived compounds that are similar in structure to cholesterol—also play a role in its heart-health benefits, says Ryan.
Phytosterols not only prevent the intestines10 from absorbing dietary cholesterol, but they also increase the excretion of cholesterol in feces. And consuming phytosterols daily10 can significantly lower LDL cholesterol levels.
It contains beneficial antioxidants.
A tablespoon of rice bran oil offers more than 4 milligrams of vitamin E, or about 30% of the recommended dietary allowance for the nutrient11 for individuals 14 years or older.
This fat-soluble vitamin has antioxidant properties, meaning it protects cells from damage caused by exposure to free radicals (highly unstable molecules that trigger oxidative stress) that may contribute to cardiovascular disease and cancer11 development.
Along with vitamin E, rice bran oil is rich in gamma-oryzanol, a compound that's considered to be1 one of the most effective antioxidants and may have anti-cancer properties.
In a study on mice that had been inoculated with colon cancer, researchers found that gamma-oryzanol consumption12 significantly reduced the rodents' tumor mass. That said, the results of animal studies can't necessarily be applied to the human population.
It may improve skin health.
In addition to the cooking oil aisle, rice bran oil is also found in cosmetic products, says Ryan. It's often included in soaps, she adds, along with sunscreens and topical anti-aging products13.
The reason: Rice bran contains squalene and tocotrienols, compounds that aid in skin softening and repair when applied topically.
When combined with surfactants, preservatives, and antioxidants in distilled water, rice bran oil has also been shown to improve skin moisture levels and maintain the skin's normal pH values. In turn, it may be useful to treat skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis, researchers state13.
Thanks to its ever-so-slight nutty flavor and high smoke point, rice bran oil is a hypoallergenic alternative to peanut oil, says Ryan. The oil is also used in products marketed toward folks with gluten intolerances or allergies, as rice itself is naturally gluten-free, she adds.
The downsides of rice bran oil.
Rice bran may have some noteworthy benefits, but it also comes with a few health concerns. Here are the potential drawbacks of rice bran oil:
It contains saturated fat.
Although rice bran oil contains unsaturated fats that support heart health, the cooking ingredient does contain some saturated fat, which may increase14 LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels and contribute to15 heart disease and stroke when consumed in excess.
Rice bran oil also contains a higher amount of omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. Most people already get plenty of omega-6 fats (which are found in processed foods) from their diet, and they need to balance them out with omega-3 fats (which can be found in flaxseed, hemp, and chia oils).
Its production may cause environmental harm.
Rice is often grown using pesticides, and 15% of the total pesticides16 used for crop production globally are used in rice paddy fields. In turn, traces of these chemicals may be found in the bran oil, says Ryan.
These pesticides can also enter waterways17 and seep into groundwater, making it unsafe for consumption and exposing animals, humans, and flora to toxic chemicals. What's more, the application of some pesticides can impact the health of farmworkers18 and neighboring communities19.
The rice bran oil extraction process itself can be harmful to the environment, too. As mentioned, rice bran is typically extracted with chemical solvents, not mechanical methods that press the oil out of the bran, says Ryan.
"While the chemical solvents like hexane that are used to extract the oil are not in the final refined product you purchase, they are still waste products," she adds. "So from an environmental standpoint, I think it's important that we still realize how energy-intensive or chemically intensive the rice bran oil extraction process can be."
Rice may contain arsenic.
A toxic metalloid, arsenic is a common groundwater contaminant, particularly in East and South Asia and in South American countries. In agricultural fields, arsenic has been known to accumulate in rice, which, when consumed, may lead to toxicity20. Specifically, arsenic has been linked with health problems21 such as cancer and DNA damage, in humans.
While some of these impurities are removed during the oil-refining processes, says Ryan, they may not be completely filtered out. One 2015 study found arsenic present in some rice bran oils, along with concentrations of other heavy metals, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and zinc, that were well above those recommended for drinking water.
So, is rice bran oil good or bad?
As with other plant oils, rice bran oil is generally safe to consume in moderation in the occasional stir-fry, and thanks to its unsaturated fat content and antioxidants, it may offer some health benefits.
That said, rice bran oil does contain saturated fat and has a higher amount of omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids, which may increase LDL cholesterol and potentially promote inflammation, respectively.
Plus, the cooking oil may contain traces of heavy metals and have a significant environmental impact throughout its production process.
You'll want to be particularly mindful of some processed foods that contain rice bran oil, as these items may also contain high amounts of sodium and sugar, which are known to have negative health impacts. Rice bran oil is also used for frying, which isn't such a healthy food preparation either.
While all rice bran oils on the market will have roughly the same nutritional profile, you'll want to opt for organic and/or expeller-pressed varieties to minimize the environmental harm of traditional rice bran oil.
Rice bran oil vs. other oils.
Rice bran oil vs. olive oil
A tablespoon of olive oil offers about the same amount of total fat (14 grams) and is nearly equal in saturated fat (2.17 grams) as rice bran oil.
However, the two cooking oils diverge in terms of unsaturated fat: Olive oil is significantly higher in monounsaturated fat (9.58 grams) and lower in polyunsaturated fat (1.33 grams)22. The smoke point of olive oil ranges from 350 to 470 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the variety used.
While rice bran oil may be a better pick for frying or cooking at high temperatures, consuming olive oil has been linked with better overall health. Plus, given its high monounsaturated fat content, olive oil is a healthier choice for home cooking than rice bran oil. Opt for more nutrient-rich extra-virgin olive oil when you can.
Rice bran oil vs. vegetable oil
Much like rice bran oil, a tablespoon of vegetable oil, often soybean oil or a combination of inexpensive seed oils, provides 14 grams of fat, but the fatty acid profile differs slightly. Vegetable oil offers slightly less saturated fat (1.92 grams), just 0.3 gram more monounsaturated fat (5.64 grams), and about 1 gram more polyunsaturated fat (5.64 grams)23.
The biggest difference between the two oils: the smoke point, which is just 400 degrees Fahrenheit for vegetable oil. Though the nutritional distinctions are minor, rice bran oil may be a slightly better option if you're looking to cook at higher temperatures.
Rice bran oil vs. sunflower oil
Once again, sunflower oil and rice bran oil both provide about 14 grams of fat per tablespoon, but the former has slightly less saturated fat (1.44 grams), roughly half the amount of monounsaturated fat, and nearly double the amount of polyunsaturated fat24.
Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats can help improve heart health when eaten in place of saturated fat. However, consuming rice bran oil in place of sunflower oil has been found25 to decrease total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels in women with Type 2 diabetes. Since sunflower oil also has a smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, rice bran oil may be the slightly more nutritious option for high-heat cooking, but they're comparable.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is rice bran oil healthier than vegetable oil?
Rice bran oil's nutritional profile stacks up pretty closely with vegetable oil's; they offer similar amounts of saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. If smoke point is a concern, you're best off choosing rice bran oil, which can safely be heated 90 degrees Fahrenheit higher than vegetable oil.
What's the rice bran oil extraction process?
Most often, rice bran oil is extracted with chemical solvents like hexane, which is released into the environment during the extraction and recovery processes and reacts with pollutants to form harmful ozone. Other greener, though less common, extraction methods include expeller pressing, which involves pressing the oil out of the bran with a machine, and supercritical fluid methods, which involve using high-pressure carbon dioxide to extract the oil.
What’s a good rice bran oil substitute?
If you're looking to cut down on omega-6 fatty acids and consume more monounsaturated fats, turn to olive oil as a healthier rice bran oil substitute. Just note that the flavor will be a bit stronger.
Including moderate amounts of rice bran oil in your diet may come with some potential health benefits, thanks to its unsaturated fat and antioxidants, and it's a good option for individuals with allergies. However, there are environmental and ethical concerns surrounding the oil's production, and it contains cholesterol-raising saturated fat.
The bottom line: Cooking with rice bran oil on occasion is nothing to stress about. But for daily meals, consider using more nutritious oils, such as olive oil and avocado oil, to support your health.
Megan Falk is an experienced health and wellness journalist whose work has appeared in publications such as SHAPE.com, Health.com, LIVESTRONG.com, Equinox, DoctorOz.com, and SAVEUR magazine, among others. Most recently, she was the assistant editor at SHAPE.com, primarily covering exercise tips, fitness modalities, workout trends, nutrition, and more.
Megan is a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a bachelor's degree in Magazine Journalism and a minor in Food Studies. She's also a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise.