Rhubarb is a vegetable known for its reddish stalks and sour taste.
In Europe and North America, it’s cooked and often sweetened. In Asia, its roots are used medicinally.
This article provides a detailed overview of rhubarb, including its uses and potential health benefits.
What is rhubarb?
Rhubarb is renowned for its sour taste and thick stalks, which are usually cooked with sugar.
The stalks range in color from red to pink to pale green and have a consistency that’s similar to celery.
This vegetable requires cold winters to grow. As a result, it’s mainly found in mountainous and temperate regions around the world, especially in Northeast Asia. It’s also a common garden plant in North America and Northern Europe.
Several varieties and species exist. In the West, the most common variety is called culinary or garden rhubarb (Rheum x hybridum).
How is it used?
Rhubarb is an unusual vegetable because it’s very sour and slightly sweet.
In fact, it’s easily mistaken for a fruit. Adding to the confusion, rhubarb is officially classified as a fruit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Due to its sour taste, it’s rarely eaten raw. Instead, it’s normally cooked — either sweetened with sugar or used as an ingredient.
It wasn’t until the 18th century, when sugar became cheap and readily available, that rhubarb became a popular food.
Before that, it was mainly used medicinally. In fact, its dried roots have been utilized in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Only the stalks are eaten, most commonly in sweet soups, jams, sauces, pies, tarts, crumbles, cocktails, and rhubarb wine.
As sweet rhubarb pies are a traditional dessert in the United Kingdom and North America, this vegetable is sometimes called “pie plant.”
Nutrient content of rhubarb
Rhubarb is not especially rich in essential nutrients, and its calorie content is low.
However, it is a very good source of vitamin K1, providing around 26–37% of the Daily Value (DV) in a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving depending on whether it’s cooked.
Like other fruits and vegetables, it’s also high in fiber, providing similar amounts as oranges, apples, or celery.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked rhubarb with added sugar contains:
- Calories: 116
- Carbs: 31.2 grams
- Fiber: 2 grams
- Protein: 0.4 grams
- Vitamin K1: 26% of the DV
- Calcium: 15% of the DV
- Vitamin C: 6% of the DV
- Potassium: 3% of the DV
- Folate: 1% of the DV
Although there are decent amounts of calcium in rhubarb, it’s mainly in the form of the antinutrient calcium oxalate. In this form, your body can’t absorb it efficiently. It is also moderately high in vitamin C, boasting 6% of the DV in a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving.
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Health benefits of rhubarb
Studies on the health benefits of rhubarb are limited.
However, a few studies have examined the effects of isolated rhubarb stalk components, such as its fiber.
May lower cholesterol levels
Rhubarb stalks are a good source of fiber, which may affect your cholesterol.
In one controlled study, men with high levels ate 27 grams of rhubarb-stalk fiber every day for a month. Their total cholesterol dropped by 8% and their LDL (bad) cholesterol by 9%.
This beneficial effect is not exclusive to rhubarb fiber. Many other fiber sources are equally effective.
Rhubarb is also a rich source of antioxidants.
One study suggests that its total polyphenol content may be even higher than that of kale.
The antioxidants in rhubarb include anthocyanins, which are responsible for its red color and thought to provide health benefits. Rhubarb is also high in proanthocyanidins, also known as condensed tannins.
These antioxidants may be responsible for some of the health benefits of fruits, red wine, and cocoa.
Why does it taste sour?
Rhubarb is probably the most sour-tasting vegetable you can find.
Its acidity is mainly due to its high levels of malic and oxalic acid. Malic acid is one of the most abundant acids in plants and contributes to the sour taste of many fruits and vegetables.
Interestingly, growing rhubarb in darkness makes it less sour and more tender. This variety is known as forced rhubarb, which is grown in spring or late winter.