Rhubarb is most often thought of as a fruit because of its sweet, tart taste, particularly since it’s most often found in bakery-style creations, such as a rhubarb pie. But did you know it’s actually a vegetable? It’s true, but that doesn’t make classifying it any less complicated. While technically it is a vegetable, legally it’s classified as a fruit due to a 1947 court ruling. Talk about confusing. (1) What’s not confusing is that its ability to taste like fruit while actually being a vegetable makes rhubarb recipes both delicious and plentiful.
So what is rhubarb? The actual vegetable/fruit is part of the leaf, the petiole, of the rhubarb plant, which is the stem-like part, and it contains lots of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that provide some great health benefits, particularly for your bones.
Benefits of Rhubarb
1. Eases Digestion
As a high-fiber food, rhubarb can help ease digestion. A study was conducted of burn patients at the Burn Treatment Center of Shanxi Province at Tisco General Hospital in China and how rhubarb can possibly ease abdominal discomfort and promote a healthy and normal digestion process. The study focused on the relief of bloated stomach and discomfort, while providing regularity.
Researchers concluded that rhubarb can help protect the intestinal wall through the increased secretion of gastrointestinal hormones while providing normal contraction of the muscles that mix the contents of gastrointestinal tract. (2)
2. Strengthens Bones and Prevents Osteoporosis
Because rhubarb packs a good dose of vitamin K, it can provide useful benefits that include a role in bone metabolism and potential protection against osteoporosis. Vitamin K is required for osteocalcin to occur. This is when the metabolically active tissue of the bone undergoes continuous remodeling by the process of bone formation and bone resorption. These processes rely heavily on the performance of osteoclasts (resorption), osteoblasts (formation) and osteocytes (maintenance). Under normal conditions, bone resorption and formation work in tandem to make sure that the amount of bone removed is equal to the amount of bone that is newly formed. (3)
Vitamin K is important because it helps ensure that all of these important steps work in continuous support of the bones. Conversely, vitamin K deficiency can negatively affect these processes and ultimately raise the risk for osteoporosis development.
Beyond that, vitamin K strengthens bones overall. Studies and clinical trials conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Department of Human Biology, Nutritional Sciences and published in Nutrition in Clinical Practice show that vitamin K has a “positive effect on bone mineral density and decreases fracture risk.” (4)
3. Staves Off Brain Disorders
When someone suffers from oxidative stress caused by numerous of disorders, including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the brain usually undergoes a great deal of trauma. This stress can lead to the formation of free radicals, which can cause neuronal apoptosis and the development of some types of chronic brain disease.
Research published in Molecular Medicine Reports evaluated the effects of varying concentrations of rhubarb extract on the neuronal damage caused by irradiation. Treatment with the extract significantly decreased irradiation-induced inflammation in the brain, which may prove the protective role of this extract against oxidative stress. (5) This, in turn, potentially can help stave off brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, ALS and stroke, among others.
4. Fights Free Radicals
Rhubarb is a high-antioxidant food like the bilberry and the cranberry. It contains the powerful free-radical scavenger quercetin, among other potent antioxidants. Quercetin is a powerful antioxidant flavonoid that gives plants its color.
Research was conducted by the Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to study rhubarb seeds. A free radical-scavenging method was used as the marker to evaluate the total antioxidant capability of the extracts. Ten free radical scavengers from extracts of the seeds were screened, five of which were identified and quantitatively analyzed, including epicatechin, myricetin, hyperoside, quercitrin and quercetin. All can be regarded as the major potent antioxidants in rhubarb seeds due to representing most of the total free-radical scavenging activity.
5. Relieves Constipation and Diarrhea
Rhubarb is often referred to for its purgative properties, which are used to provide ease with bowel movements. It’s been known to help reduce strain during bowel movements and, in turn, can help ease the pain of hemorrhoids or tears in the skin lining of the anal canal, known as anal fissures.
As an herbal medicine, it can also help treat gastrointestinal discomfort that comes from constipation and diarrhea. This can be done through eating rhubarb, but it’s typically done through medicinal methods, such as tinctures, extracts and powders made from the roots and stalks of the plant. It’s crucial that you review these methods with your doctor since overconsumption can aggravate any ailment. (7, 8)
If taken properly, however, it can help relieve constipation naturally along with diarrhea.
6. Lowers Inflammation
Rhubarb has long been used in Chinese medicine due to its anti-infection properties and is known to help promote healthy skin, mucous membranes, good vision and possibly as cancer protection. All of this is due to its role as an anti-inflammatory food.
A study was performed by the State Key Laboratory of Virology/Institute of Medical Virology at the Wuhan University School of Medicine in China to determine the antiviral effect of an extract from the roots and rhizoma. The results, published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, determined that the extract from rhubarb showed significant positive results in the healing of inflammatory cells when added after infection, confirming its anti-inflammatory properties. (9)
One cup of diced, raw rhubarb contains about: (10)
- 26 calories
- 5.5 grams carbohydrates
- 1.1 grams protein
- 0.2 gram fat
- 2.2 grams fiber
- 35.7 micrograms vitamin K (45 percent DV)
- 9.8 milligrams vitamin C (16 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram manganese (12 percent DV)
- 105 milligrams calcium (10 percent DV)
- 351 milligrams potassium (10 percent DV)
- 14.6 milligrams magnesium (4 percent DV)
History of Rhubarb
The technical name of the genus (Rheum) is said to be derived from Rha, the ancient name of the Volga River, where the rhubarb plant grows. The Chinese first used this plant, medically, thousands of years ago. It eventually became known, near the 17th century, in England, where rhubarb was used as food. At that time, sugar was only for the wealthy — therefore, the sweet rhubarb pies were quite a treat. Marco Polo, a famous a Venetian merchant traveler, was a big fan of this vegetable, sharing his knowledge about the Chinese rhubarb rhizome throughout his journey. (11)
Rhubarb is most often found at farmers markets and grocery stores by the stalk, much like celery. Spring is the best harvest time, typically from April to June. The stalks are easily recognizable by their bright pink color and are also found in light pink and pale green colors, which has nothing to do with the ripeness or sweetness. However, the stalks and flowers are the only edible parts of the plant. This is very important to know since the leaves are actually poisonous.
Rhubarb made its way to the U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1947 to confirm whether it should be classified as a vegetable or a fruit. The argument stemmed from the fact that since it’s typically used in ways that fruits are used, it should be classified as such. Fruit won, and this ruling helped importers pay less taxes since the tax rate for vegetables was higher than that for fruit. (12) This makes rhubarb confusing to classify, given the differences between the science and the law.
However, whether you consider it a fruit or vegetable, there’s no confusion around the benefits of this versatile plant.
How to Eat Rhubarb
Rhubarb, when eaten alone, is very tart, which is why it’s mostly seen in pies and jams, stewed with lots of sugar and other sweet fruits, such as strawberries. While the stalk, known as the petiole, is the most common edible component, the unopened flowers are also edible and considered a delicacy in northern Asia.
As I mentioned above, the roots and leaves of rhubarb are poisonous, containing oxalic acid — an acid that is toxic to the kidneys. However, to really activate this poison, you need to consume large amounts of the leaves. Regardless, I recommend avoiding the leaves, especially if they’ve experienced frost. In fact, the frost can cause the leaves to leach the oxalic acid into the the stalks. Additionally, if the stalks have experienced freezing temperatures, they lose their flavor and firmness, becoming extremely soft and potentially dangerous.
Rhubarb plants grow from short, thick rhizomes. Rhizomes and roots grow underground — however, a rhizome is not a root, rather a stem that grows horizontally. Leaves emerge from the rhizomes and flower stalks, and flowers may develop later in the spring. While rhubarb stalks may be red, pink, green or some combination, the red- and pink-colored cultivars are most desired, likely because they have better flavor. Harvesting should not take place in the first year, and it can take two or three years to yield a good harvest.
When harvesting, the stalks are carefully pulled or cut from the plant, and the poisonous leaves are removed right away. They can be kept for about three weeks if stored in refrigeration, unwashed and tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. While some finicky eaters may refuse the rhubarb, many gardeners choose it due to the beautiful addition it offers their landscape due to the large leaves and colorful stalks.
There are many ways to incorporate rhubarb into your diet. Take a look at 19 of my favorite rhubarb recipes for some ideas, and try the following recipe to get started:
Roasted Rhubarb and Strawberry Breakfast Bowl with Walnuts and Fresh Mint
Makes about 6 servings
- 2.5 cups fresh, organic strawberries, cut in half
- 3 cups chopped rhubarb
- ⅛ cup maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- ⅛ cup fresh mint, chopped and save a few sprigs as garnish
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- ½ cup walnut halves, lightly toasted
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack positioned in the middle of the oven.
- Place parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet or cooking dish. You want to preserve the juices for your topping mixture.
- Using a large bowl, combine the strawberries and rhubarb. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and salt. Pour this over the rhubarb and strawberries, and gently toss until well-coated.
- In a single layer, spread the fruit out on the baking dish, making sure the juices cover the fruit. Place into the oven and roast for 35–40 minutes until the juices have thickened and the rhubarb is soft and tender.
- Transfer to a bowl once out of the oven and still warm. Now you have a wonderful addition to your breakfast bowl. You can use it immediately, served atop quinoa or gluten-free oatmeal, or you can top your favorite plain yogurt or kefir. It’s even delicious served warm on top of your Gluten-Free Pancakes.
- Add your walnuts and a sprig of mint. Store in the fridge.
Rhubarb poisoning occurs when someone eats pieces of leaves from the plant. Medicinally, rhubarb can cause some side effects, such as gastrointestinal problems, and long-term use can cause additional health problem due to the oxalic acid contained in the leaves. (13)
If you’re pregnant or have kidney disease or liver problems, please consult with your doctor before taking it medically. While eating the stalks of the plant is probably fine, again, check with your doctor if you have any questions as to the safety. There have been concerns with the combination of medicinal rhubarb and some medications as well.
- Rhubarb is most often thought of as a fruit because of its sweet, tart taste, particularly since it’s most often found in bakery-style creations, such as a rhubarb pie. However, it’s technically a vegetable, though it’s legally classified as fruit, making it all the more confusing.
- The stalks and flowers are the only edible parts of the plant. This is very important to know since the leaves are actually poisonous.
- The benefits of this sweet vegetable include easing digestion, strengthening bones and preventing osteoporosis, staving off brain disorders, fighting free radical damage, relieving constipation and diarrhea, and lowering inflammation.
- Remember, while consuming the stalks is usually fine, be careful when eating rhubarb. And be extra careful if you are pregnant, consulting with your doctor before adding it to your diet.
Read Next: 19 Health-Packed Rhubarb Recipes
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