Rhubarb. It’s such a lovely word, don’t you just enjoy saying it?
It’s also an amazing vegetable with an extraordinary story. The British helped make it famous once they figured out a growing process that transformed the carbohydrate in the roots into glucose, resulting in ‘forced’ rhubarb’s sour-sweet flavour and enabling the sweet-toothed population to treat it as a fruit. However, its story goes back much further and helps explain why this now often neglected vegetable deserves to be included in any routine nutrition.
Marco Polo is often credited with bringing rhubarb to the west, though it’s said to have grown on the banks of the Volga river for thousands of years. It featured in Chinese medicine for over 2,500 years, with records of many emperors having been treated with it for various ills.
Rhubarb was first used in English cooking in the late eighteenth century, to get the medicinal benefits into the body, but it only gained favour when the forcing process was discovered in Chelsea Physic Gardens in 1817, when some roots were accidentally covered with soil in the depth of winter. A whole industry grew from this discovery.
Great benefits – great taste
The leaves must be avoided, as they are highly toxic, but the stalks are packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. A good source of vitamin K (important for bone health) vitamin C and B-complex, calcium, potassium and magnesium, rhubarb is also rich in dietary fibre, that could help with heart and digestive health.
Great in pies, tarts, muffins, with pancakes, or my personal favourite, as a compote with mackerel, once bought, rhubarb is best stored in a plastic bag in the fridge where it will stay fresh for up to 2 weeks. However, this curious vegetable ‘fruit’ also has another important secret – something that is particularly special; flavonoid compounds.
Can rhubarb mean sight for sore eyes?
Rhubarb contains the flavonoid compounds lutein and zeaxanthin. According to studies published in American Journal of Epidemiology, Ophthalmology and Archives of Ophthalmology, a routine nutrition high in lutein and zeaxanthin is associated with a lower risk of AMD – age related macular degeneration. This is important because:
- AMD is the largest cause of sight loss in the developed world
- Our bodies cannot make lutein or zeaxanthin, they must be eaten
Zeaxanthin is a carotenoid (an antioxidant) located in the eyes, lutein is related to beta-carotene and sometimes referred to as the “eye” vitamin. It is thought to function as a light filter, protecting the eye from sunlight damage. It is a yellow pigment found in the leaves of plants and egg yolk and it is in the front line of eye protection. In addition to rhubarb some other food sources include: broccoli, spinach, kale, grapes and squash.
It is also worth noting that the body best absorbs lutein when it’s eaten with a high-fat meal. This makes other possible benefits of this flavonoid even more interesting: protection from a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries, which could aid with heart health.
So, love your eyes, love your heart – start loving rhubarb…
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