Rhubarb: Nutrients and bioactive compounds

by  Dr Rupy Aujla23 Mar 2023

The fascinating story of rhubarb through its history, science, cultivation and flavour. From tangy rhubarb crumbles to pickled rhubarb and savoury stews, get some cooking inspiration for your next meals.

Spring is here at long last, bringing along some of its first offerings. Rhubarb is an unsung hero of the spring garden with distinctive stalks and a reddish blush. It’s the king of crumbles and pies, but it can be used in many dishes – cut into savoury stews, pickled, roasted and sauteed. Rhubarb is a versatile veggie with a unique tang and a bright colour. For some, it tastes like childhood memories of pulling it straight from the ground and biting into its sour cords. Let’s take a closer look at the wonders of rhubarb…

In a Nutshell: The Cheat Sheet

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Plant of Yesterday

A Mysterious Past: Experts are not entirely sure where the cultivated plant came from. It’s believed to be a hybrid of wild plant species native to Central Asia and Siberia.

Its Journey to Europe: Rhubarb made its way to Europe in the 14th century and became a valuable commodity. People were trading it alongside silk and pearls! By the late 18th century, its popularity exploded as tastier varieties were developed and sugar became less expensive. (National Trust)

Alaska’s Rhubarb King! In the early 1900s, a local farmer in Alaska became known as the Rhubarb King. During the Klondike gold rush when people suffered from the lack of fresh food, his crop provided vitamins, fibre and flavour to those arriving in the newly created town of Skagway. Today, his descendants still grow on the site of his old farm. Check out this photo of him holding a gigantic specimen in 1921.

Centuries of Healing: Rhubarb was valued for its medicinal properties long before it was used in cooking.

  • China: It’s known in China as the “king of herbs” and has been used for more than 2000 years.
  • Ancient Greece: The Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides (circa 40 – 90 CE) wrote about its benefits in its encyclopedia De Materia Medica.
  • England: Around 1790, the physician William Woodville wrote about the qualities of rhubarb root as a gentle purgative in his three-volume work to educate medical practitioners about plants. Find out more.

What about today?

Research Digest

One of your vegetables: Rhubarb contributes to your weekly portions of whole plants, adding some colour and diversity to your plate. A higher intake of whole plants was repeatedly linked to better health outcomes.

Human studies on the health effects of rhubarb in the diet are sparse and limited. Still, they offer some insight into the potential health-supporting role of rhubarb in our meals this season.

Regulating inflammation and promoting gut health: Giving rhubarb to patients with sepsis improved their inflammatory markers and gastrointestinal dysfunction, according to a meta-analysis of 15 human trials. (Zhang et al. 2015)

Severe acute pancreatitis: Clinically, the combination of rhubarb and the basic treatment for pancreatitis is commonly used to increase the therapeutic effect. Giving rhubarb to patients with severe acute pancreatitis improved their length of hospitalisation, abdominal pain, and serum amylase levels, according to a meta-analysis of 16 clinical trials. (Hu et al. Phytother Res. 2018)

Smaller Studies
Diabetes: Two small human trials found that rhubarb extract improved the regulation of blood glucose in diabetic patients. (Shojaei et al. 2018; 2019)

Quick Food Science

The main characteristic compounds in rhubarb include anthraquinones, such as emodin, stilbenes and flavonoids, especially anthocyanins. Rhubarb also provides dietary fibre and vitamins K and C.

Taste: Rhubarb’s refreshing taste is provided by organic acids, including malic acid, fumaric and oxalic acids.

Colour: Anthocyanins give rise to varying shades of reds and pinks, depending on the variety. (Kalisz et al. 2020)

Anthra-what now? These chemical names do not mean much to most of us but recognising some of them can be useful to understand how food may support body function.

Biological Activities: Compounds in rhubarb show high antioxidant activities. They are also thought to support digestive health by promoting intestinal movement and helping regulate the gut microbiota. (Xiang et al.2020)

Farm to Plate

A Frosty Plant that Keeps on Giving: Rhubarb is a perennial plant that thrives in cold weather and springs back season after season. Stalks are ready for picking from March for early cultivars, making it one of the first veggies to pop up in the spring! It’s best to stop harvesting by June to avoid weakening the plant.

Undercover Rhubarb: Early in the year, you’ll find forced rhubarb. These are early cultivars, grown under pots in the dark, which makes them more delicately flavoured. From late April, maincrop varieties grown outdoors are ready for picking. Their stalks are deeper red, tinged with green and have a more intense flavour.

The UK’s Famous ‘Rhubarb Triangle’: An area of West Yorkshire became known as the centre for forced rhubarb, called the ‘rhubarb triangle’. It is now recognised as a Protected designation of origin, meaning that only a handful of growers in the area can use the name, similar to champagne from the Champagne region of France. (National Trust)

Grow Your Own: Rhubarb is considered easy to grow. It’s best planted in its own space in any corner of the garden where it can grow undisturbed, and it grows well in soil amended with plenty of well-rotted compost. Growing tips.

Shopping: Find your local farm shop.

Tasty Tips

Rhubarb Around the World
  • Iran: In a stew called Khoresh Rivas with tender meat, spices and fresh herbs. Rather than moderating rhubarb’s sourness with sweet ingredients, Iranian cuisine uses its unique tartness in savoury dishes.
  • Eastern Europe: In a traditional fermented drink, called Rhubarb Kvass, with cinnamon, and cloves.
  • England: In the typically Yorkshire Rhubarb Cobbler

The Impact of Cooking: Most cooking methods were found to increase total polyphenol content and overall antioxidant capacity. (Kalisz et al. 2020)

Prep: Cut off the leaves and discard them as they are poisonous due to their high levels of oxalic acid. Wash the stems and chop them into batons or chunks.

Taste: Rhubarb has a tart and sour flavour that becomes fascinating when it’s cooked and paired well. It goes well with:

  • Ginger & citrus fruits
  • Sweet ingredients like maple syrup, honey, vanilla, lavender, coconut or dates
  • Oily fish, especially mackerel

My Favourite Ways to Eat Rhubarb

  • As a side to oily fish like mackerel: Cook a few rhubarb stalks with chopped shallots, 2 tsp wine vinegar and 1 tsp brown sugar for a few minutes. Season and serve with pan-fried mackerel.
  • In salads, stir-fries, casseroles and curries: Add it along with other veggies and spices for a unique and tangy touch!
  • In a crumble: Cook rhubarb, frozen berries, maple syrup, vanilla and a squeeze of lemon until soft. Place in an oven-proof dish. To make the crumb, blitz 120g almonds and 100g oats. Add coconut oil, cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Sprinkle over the fruit. Bake at 200C for 20-30 minutes and serve with coconut yoghurt.

Get Cooking!

Vibrant Malay Salad

Pickled Rhubarb

Rhubarb Crumble

Rhubarb Chicken

by Dr Rupy Aujla


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