Apart from adding flavor to many desserts, where it is most famously paired with strawberries, rhubarb, well-known for its distinctive tart flavor is actually fully “stalked” with really great nutrition! In fact, it’s been used medicinally for over 5000 years but only more recently as food.
Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable but is prepared and consumed as a fruit from a culinary perspective, which is a bit of a rarity. Usually, it works the other way around where many fruits, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers (to name a few) are consumed as culinary vegetables! The only edible portion of the plant is the petioles, more commonly referred to as stalks (which look like pinkish-red celery). The large green leaves are actually quite poisonous (a serious issue which became apparent during World War I when they were mistakenly recommended as a food source in Britain!)
Rhubarb originally came from Asia where it’s had a long history in traditional Chinese medicine. From Asia, it made its way along the Silk Road to Europe where it was also used by Ancient Greeks and Romans medicinally. It was so prized that in medieval Europe it was more expensive than herbs and spices such as cinnamon, opium and saffron! The high cost and increasing demand for this vegetable prompted cultivation of different species of rhubarb in Europe in order to secure a local supply for this medicinal plant. However, the origin story for culinary rhubarb is not clear. It is thought that species grown for medicinal purposes in Europe in the early 18th century hybridized resulting in the culinary variety (Rheum x hybridum). The availability of locally grown rhubarb, coupled with the decreasing cost of sugar, plus the fact that it was it was one of the first vegetables ready for harvest after a long winter without fresh food, further helped rhubarb attain gastronomic acceptance and widespread consumption began in Britain in the early 19th century. Today these ‘crimson stalks’ (nicknamed the “pie-plant” for obvious reasons) are grown in many parts of the world. Fascinatingly, the sweetest rhubarb is grown by a method known as “forcing” where plants that originally develop outside, are transferred to dark sheds for the later stages of their growth. The plants are then harvested by candle-light, where it is said that it is so quiet and they grow so quickly you can hear the ‘pop’ and ‘squeak’ of the plants expanding. Sometimes referred to as champagne rhubarb, these plants are valued for their sweetness and tenderness and sometimes cost 3 times that of regular garden variety rhubarb! Apart from its culinary accomplishments, rhubarb is also the base of several alcoholic drinks and the roots of the plant can even be used to lighten your hair – look out strawberry-blondes, rhubarb-blondes may just become the next fashion trend!
Nutrivore Score for Rhubarb – 598
Rhubarb has a Nutrivore Score of 598#, making it a super high-dense food! Plus, it is a low-carb and low-calorie-density food; the calorie count of rhubarb is 26 calories per cup!
Per serving, rhubarb is an excellent source (20-50% daily value) of polyphenols and vitamin K; and a good source (10-20% daily value) of manganese and vitamin C.
Rhubarb Nutrition Facts
One serving of rhubarb is standardized to 1 cup, diced or about 122 grams (4.3 ounces). A typical stalk of rhubarb weighs 51 grams which means: one serving of rhubarb is roughly equivalent to a little less than 2 1/2 stalks of rhubarb.
|Rhubarb, raw||Nutrivore Score: 598||Nutrient Density: High|
|Serving Size: 1 cup, diced (122 grams)||Protein: 1.1 grams||Net Carbohydrates: 3.3 grams|
|Calories: 26||Total Fat: 0.2 grams||Dietary Fiber: 2.2 grams|
|Vitamin A||6.1 μg RAE||1% DV|
|Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)||24.4 μg||2% DV|
|Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)||36.6 μg||3% DV|
|Vitamin B3 (Niacin)||0.4 mg||2% DV|
|Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)||0.1 mg||2% DV|
|Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)||29.3 μg||2% DV|
|Vitamin B7 (Biotin)||~||~|
|Vitamin B9 (Folate)||8.5 μg||2% DV|
|Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)||0.0 μg||0% DV|
|Vitamin C||9.8 mg||11% DV|
|Vitamin D (D2 + D3)||0.0 μg||0% DV|
|Vitamin E||0.3 mg||2% DV|
|Vitamin K||35.7 μg||30% DV|
|Choline||7.4 mg||1% DV|
|Calcium||104.9 mg||8% DV|
|Copper||25.6 μg||3% DV|
|Iron||0.3 mg||1% DV|
|Magnesium||14.6 mg||3% DV|
|Manganese||239.1 μg||10% DV|
|Phosphorus||17.1 mg||1% DV|
|Potassium||351.4 mg||7% DV|
|Selenium||1.3 μg||2% DV|
|Sodium||4.9 mg||0% DV|
|Zinc||0.1 mg||1% DV|
|AMINO ACIDS & PEPTIDES|
Rhubarb Nutrition Varies With Processing
The Nutrivore Score of rhubarb varies based on how it has been processed. For instance, frozen rhubarb is conveniently available year-round at many grocery stores and is a great alternative to fresh.
|Rhubarb, frozen, uncooked||586|
Health Benefits of Rhubarb Nutrients
Let’s take a closer look at all of the best and excellent source of nutrients found in a 1-cup serving of rhubarb and see how they benefit our health.
Rhubarb Provides 325.3 mg of Polyphenols
Rhubarb is an excellent source of polyphenols, providing 325.3 mg of polyphenols per 1-cup serving!
Polyphenols play a huge role in protecting against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis, neurodegenerative diseases, and other conditions associated with oxidative stress. In fact, a major reason foods like red wine and olive oil (as well as diets rich in both, such as the Mediterranean diet) show up as so beneficial may be due to their high polyphenol content! Along with chronic diseases, supplementing with polyphenols has been shown to protect against infections and reduce the signs of aging. Polyphenols exert their most potent effects by acting as antioxidants—preventing cellular damage by neutralizing hazardous oxygen radicals and improving cellular health as a result (which, in turn, benefits virtually every system in the body). As a result of their antioxidant properties, polyphenols also boost the immune system and protect against both chronic and acute diseases. In addition, polyphenols can help regulate enzyme function, stimulate cell receptors, modulate the functions of inflammatory cells (including T and B lymphocytes, macrophages, platelets, and natural killer cells), alter adhesion molecule expression, affect nerve cells and cardiac muscle cells, and exert antiviral effects. Learn more about polyphenols here.
Rhubarb Provides 30% DV Vitamin K
Rhubarb is also an excellent source of vitamin K, providing 30% of the daily value per 1-cup serving!
Vitamin K is actually a group of fat-soluble vitamins with a similar molecular structure, existing as K1, multiple isoforms of K2, and the synthetic form K3. This nutrient plays a vital role in coagulation, due to serving as a cofactor for proteins needed for blood clotting; it’s also essential for bone metabolism, cellular function, and the prevention of soft tissue calcification. Getting enough vitamin K2 can help protect against cardiovascular disease, may improve bone mineral density and skeletal health, and may even support endocrine function and brain health; there’s also some limited evidence it has anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Learn more about vitamin K here.
How Much Rhubarb Should We Eat Per Day?
Not only is this vegetable-turned fruit well-known for its distinctive appearance and tart taste, it’s also fully “stalked” with great nutrition and loads of health benefits!
Consuming 800 grams of vegetables and fruits daily reduces all-cause mortality by 31% compared to eating less than 40 grams daily. A 2017 systemic review and meta-analysis looked at how all-cause mortality was impacted by varying intakes of 12 different food groups: whole grains and cereals, refined grains and cereals, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, eggs, dairy products, fish, red meat, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages. This analysis revealed non-linear relationships between how much of a particular food group we eat and how it impacts our health. While the results revealed no upper limit to the benefits of vegetable intake, the sweet spot for fruit intake was 300 grams daily. Intakes of fruit over 400 grams per day were not as beneficial as 300 grams, but the good news is that even intakes of 600 grams of fruits per day was superior to no fruit at all! This sweet spot for fruit intake translates to 2 to 3 servings of fruit daily.
Thus, a good rule of thumb is to aim for at least 500 to 600 grams of vegetables (5 to 8 servings, depending on the vegetable, and as much as you want above that) and about 300 grams of fruit (2 to 3 servings, depending on the fruit) per day. Fruit makes a convenient snack, a healthy dessert, a whimsical addition to salads, and a sophisticated flavoring agent in the form of salsas, jams, and chutneys. A serving is standardized to 1 cup chopped for raw vegetables and fruits (typically translates to 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup once cooked). Learn more in Importance of Vegetables and Fruit
The biologically active compounds in rhubarb give it very high antioxidant properties and many health benefits, including protecting against some cancers, reducing inflammation, inhibiting bacterial and viral growth, and acting as a diuretic.
It’s always best to mix up the fruit and veggies you eat day to day (aiming for a wide variety of different vegetables and fruits throughout the week), and rhubarb definitely has a place at the table.
Expand to see all scientific references for this article.
Fineli Finnish Food Composition Database: Rhubarb
Takeoka GR, Dao L, Harden L, Pantoja A, Kuhl JC. Antioxidant activity, phenolic and anthocyanin contents of various rhubarb (Rheum spp.) varieties. International Journal of Food Science + Technology. 2013. Vol 48(1):172-178. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2621.2012.03174.x
USDA Food Central Database: Rhubarb, raw