Is it a fruit or a vegetable? Is it toxic or safe to eat? Rhubarb is a conundrum to many, but nutrition consultant Fiona Hunter can shed some light and offer us plenty of reasons to give it a try…
What is rhubarb?
The pink fleshy stalks of rhubarb have an intensely tart flavour, which might be why rhubarb attracts such strong opinions. Although most often used for sweet dishes – rhubarb crumble and rhubarb & custard being two favourites – it also works well in savoury dishes, baked goods like muffins, and makes delicious jam and chutney.
Forced rhubarb, grown in a darkened shed, under an upturned bucket or a pot, is harvested by candlelight in mid-January to early February. It has a sweeter, more subtle flavour than main crop rhubarb which is grown outdoors and harvested in spring and early summer. Only the stalks of the plant are edible: the leaves contain very high levels of oxalic acid which is poisonous.
Health benefits of rhubarb may include:
- Helping to keep bones healthy and reduces the risk of osteoporosis
- Assisting wound healing
- Protecting against heart disease
- Aiding digestion
- Lowering blood pressure
- Reducing the risk of cancer
- Reducing inflammation
- Lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Maintaining eye health
- Antibacterial properties
1 serving (140g) rhubarb, stewed without sugar, contains approximately:
- 15 kcals
- 0g fat
- 1.3g protein
- 2.4g fibre
- 0.9g carbohydrate (0.9g sugar)
- 0g salt
What are the top health benefits of rhubarb?
1. Can help keep bones healthy and reduce the risk of osteoporosis
Rhubarb is a good source of vitamin K, a key nutrient necessary for healthy bones. Vitamin K activates a protein called osteocalcin, which encourages bones to lay down calcium. Studies show that people with a higher intake of vitamin K were less likely to suffer from hip fractures.
2. Can help with wound healing
Vitamin K is essential to make the proteins necessary for blood clotting, allowing wounds to heal.
3. Can help protect against heart disease
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical nutrition found taking vitamin K supplements slowed the progression of coronary artery calcification (CAC), a condition in which calcium builds up in the arteries, restricting the flow of blood. Polyphenols, a group of phytochemicals, found in rhubarb, tea, berries and red wine, may offer additional protection.
4. Aids digestion
Rhubarb contains a group of compounds called sennosides (also found in senna), which can act as natural laxative, helping to prevent constipation. It’s also a useful source of dietary fibre which helps keep the digestive system healthy.
5. May help lower blood pressure
Rhubarb is a source of potassium, which helps to counter the damaging effects of eating too much salt. A study published in the European Heart Journal revealed that women who had the highest intakes of potassium were 13 per cent less likely to have a heart attack or a stroke.
6. May help reduce the risk of cancer
A group of phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which give rhubarb its characteristic pinky-red colour, are believed to help neutralise free radicals – which in turn may help to protect against certain types of cancer. Varieties with bright red skin provide higher levels of anthocyanins.
7. Can help reduce inflammation
Anthocyanins have been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Chronic inflammation has been linked with a host of diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis.
8. May help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes
One serving (140g) of stewed rhubarb provides 20 per cent of the recommended daily amount of the mineral manganese, which has been shown to help improve glucose tolerance. A study published in the journal Diabetes Care found that, in postmenopausal women, a higher intake of manganese was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
9. Can help keep eyes healthy
Rhubarb contains vitamin C and the phytochemical lutein, both of which help to protect the eyes from damage from free radicals which increase the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
10. Believed to have antibacterial properties
The roots of the rhubarb plant have been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine for their antibacterial properties. Studies are now underway to discover if the stalks also offer the same benefits.
Is rhubarb poisonous?
The leaves of rhubarb are poisonous: they contain very high levels of oxalic acid; the stalk is edible though. Rhubarb is high in calcium oxalate which can increase the risk of kidney stones in susceptible people. The high levels of vitamin K may also interfere with the blood thinning medication warfarin.
Is rhubarb a fruit?
Although we tend to think if it as a fruit, and it’s mostly commonly used in sweet dishes, rhubarb is in fact a vegetable belonging to the same family as sorrel.
Rhubarb is high in a number of nutrients, helping it to provide a good range of health benefits. One risk, though, is that its tart, acidic taste means it’s often eaten with a lot of sugar. You can reduce the amount of sugar you need to use by teaming it with naturally sweet fruits like bananas or strawberries or by using a sugar-free sweetener like xylitol, stevia or aspartame.