Rhubarb — delicious in a crumble, or even a jam. There are mixed opinions on whether it’s safe for pregnant women. Does this mean you should avoid it completely?
Rhubarb may not be safe during pregnancy in large amounts. It contains emodin and also oxalic acid, both of which can have negative effects. Small amounts of rhubarb are probably fine during pregnancy, and it does have benefits, though you may wish to avoid it.
So, what are the benefits of rhubarb, how serious can it affect the liver, kidneys, and the baby, and is there a way to reduce these harmful compounds when cooking? Learn all the answers below.
Is it Safe to Eat Rhubarb When Pregnant?
Rhubarb is likely safe during pregnancy if eaten in moderation, and if thoroughly washed and cooked. This only applies to the stem, however. Rhubarb leaves contain large amounts of oxalic acid, and are therefore toxic – even if they’re cooked.
Rhubarb is rich in oxalates and anthraquinones. These two induce crystals to form and deposit in the kidney leading to renal dysfunction – particularly in those with existing kidney problems. If you have any type of renal dysfunction, it might be best to avoid rhubarb (even if you’re not pregnant, too).
Rhubarb’s association with cancer is due to pre-clinical studies showing the mutagenic and genotoxic effects of rhubarb due to its anthraquinone content. Taking anthraquinone for a long time may cause gastric cancer and colorectal cancer.
However, more has to be examined and evidence has to be gathered. Whether it can cause cancer in the gastrointestinal system or not is still disputable.
While there is no human data available, its emodin content was shown to cause fetal abnormalities in animals (source: Reproductive Toxicology).
As you can see, studies conducted about rhubarb are varied. During pregnancy, it may be better to avoid the consumption of foods with high oxalate such as rhubarb (source: Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition). However, moderate food amounts are likely to be safer.
It’s also worth noting that there’s research on how cooking methods can reduce oxalate content in vegetables. Boiling can decrease soluble oxalate by 30-87%, and steaming by 5-53%. Therefore cooked rhubarb is likely to have fewer oxalates (Source: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry). Since rhubarb is very bitter when it’s raw, most people eat it cooked anyway.
This means that the most common dishes:
- Rhubarb Crumble
- Rhubarb Jam or Jelly
- Rhubarb Yogurts
are all likely to be fine in small food amounts if you have no existing kidney issues. Raw rhubarb should be avoided.
Remember that rhubarb plant is grown near the ground, so it always needs a good wash before you cook with it, to avoid any risk of toxoplasmosis from the soil.
On the whole, studies on rhubarb are inconclusive. The jury is still out on whether pregnant women should be told to avoid it, and more research is needed.
The Benefits of Rhubarb When Pregnant
According to a study published in 2020, rhubarb may have several benefits.
Rhubarb contains methanol that can strongly fight off bacteria and destroy their biofilm which is responsible for antibiotic resistance. Its effects on the gut are also promising by helping balance and improve gut health by regulating the gut flora.
However, its most notable effect on the gut is to promote digestion. Its tannic acid content acts and anthraquinones help make this happen. Rhubarb is said to help with the recovery of diseases that are inflammatory in nature.
However, people with liver inflammation should reduce their usage of rhubarb, while those with kidney diseases should not use it for a long time (source: Chinese Medicine)
In relation to pregnancy, according to a study, a low dose of 0.75g per day of rhubarb may help reduce the risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH) (source: Zhonghua Fu Chan Ke Za Zhi).
Rhubarb also contains small amounts of potassium and calcium, both of which are needed during pregnancy.
Can I Drink Rhubarb Tea When Pregnant?
Most pregnant women can probably drink rhubarb tea in moderation.
There are tea companies that offer both rhubarb as an ingredient and as rhubarb-flavored teas. The Fortnum and Mason British Tea, for example, add rhubarb pieces to their tea. Others, such as the Taylors of Harrogate Sweet Rhubarb Infusion, use 2% natural rhubarb flavoring.
Depending on the manufacturer, the concentration of one natural tea flavoring can differ from one to another. In both these examples, rhubarb tea is likely to be safe, as it contains very small amounts of rhubarb. Always check the ingredients of tea blends, to see if there’s anything else in it you should avoid.
If you have kidney problems or are concerned, speak to your doctor about drinking any type of rhubarb tea.
Rhubarb Leaves and Pregnancy
Rhubarb leaves contain higher concentrations of oxalic acid compared to the stalk. They are toxic and should not be eaten (source: Plants). In fact, rhubarb leaves are used in making bioethanol and biohydrogen, the former a renewable biofuel, and the latter an advanced biofuel (source: Fuels).
While earlier studies chronicle more the benefits of rhubarb, recent ones report on its safety and risks. Overall, small food amounts are likely safe, but if you have any concerns, then speak to your healthcare provider.
We hope this article help explain rhubarb, its components, and how it can affect the body and the baby.