It’s not just for dessert
— but don’t eat the leaves
It may seem odd to think of rhubarb as being good for you, since it’s so often turned into decadent desserts like pies and crisps. But if you mind the sugar, rhubarb makes a great addition to a healthy diet.
Though rhubarb is often considered a fruit—because it’s frequently served sweet—it’s actually an herbaceous perennial vegetable that comes up in the early springtime and is harvested in May and June. “We have rhubarb plants on the farm that are over 50 years old,” says Pam Mount of Terhune Orchards in Princeton. “One reason it’s not commonly found at farmers’ markets is because it can take three to five years before it’s ready to harvest. Once the plant is established, though, it will provide for years to come.”
Mount adds that some varieties have green stalks while others have red. The red variety is the most popular because it adds a lovely pink color to whatever dish you’re preparing. Regardless of the type, the only part of the plant that can be consumed is the stalk—the leaves are toxic and can make you sick.
Rhubarb by itself is incredibly sour, which requires creativity in how you prepare it. It’s often combined with strawberries because the two taste fantastic together and share the same harvest time.
“Using fresh or dried fruit with rhubarb is a great way to incorporate it into your diet and avoid added sugar,” says Velta Soucie, a nutritionist at Hunterdon Healthcare in Flemington. “One cup of rhubarb provides 10% of your daily needs of calcium and 30% of vitamin K, which is excellent for blood clotting and helping wounds heal.”
Soucie says that one of the major benefits of rhubarb is that it’s very good for skin and eye health. “Rhubarb contains lycopene and lutein, which are antioxidants that destroy free radicals. Our skin and eyes are constantly exposed to our environment, and these antioxidants help prevent toxins like pollution and ultraviolet rays from being absorbed into the body.” Soucie adds that though rhubarb can be eaten raw (if you dare), the fibrous stalks need to be cooked in order to release the lycopene to be absorbed by the body.
Note that rhubarb is not good for those at risk of kidney stones. “Rhubarb contains oxalic acid, which can promote the development of kidney stones,” warns Soucie. “This is only a concern for those who are at risk for them or have had them in the past.”
Rhubarb is often used in Chinese medicine, specifically for providing digestive relief. “It is made into either a tincture or dried granules that can be mixed with water to drink,” explains Paul Shu of Holsome Teas and Herbs in Princeton, “For those with digestive sensitivities, taking rhubarb in an herbal form can offer a milder approach.
The benefits have been extracted and concentrated, and consuming it as a tea is gentle on the body.” From a traditional Chinese medicine standpoint, rhubarb both cools and invigorates the blood. “It is also used to detoxify the body by removing toxins from the digestive tract.” (Chinese medicine is a complex system with medicinal and philosophical modalities. To find out if it’s right for you, contact a certified practitioner.)
This spring, if you happen to spot rhubarb at your local market, consider yourself lucky. Enjoying it, while knowing how good it is for you, might just inspire you to start a patch of your own.