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What is rooibos tea?
Rooibos or red bush is a tisane traditionally made by fermenting the leaves of the flowering shrub, Aspalathus linearis. Green rooibos, which is unfermented, differs in flavour and carries a higher price tag. Despite having no connection with traditional black or green tea, rooibos is enjoyed in a similar way, either with or without milk and sugar.
What is the history of rooibos tea?
Rooibos is a popular cuppa which has been consumed in the Cedarberg mountain region of South Africa for more than 300 years. The plant was first recorded by botanists in 1772 after they enjoyed a sweet-tasting brew offered to them by the local people. The tea is made by cutting and bruising the leaves and stems of the plant, fermenting them in heaps and leaving them to dry in the sun – a process which turns the leaves their characteristic red-brown colour.
A cultivated crop since the 1930s, rooibos is now exported to more than 31 countries, including the UK, Germany, China, Japan and the United States.
What are the nutritional benefits of rooibos tea?
The main nutritional benefit of rooibos tea lies in its rich antioxidant content and it being a source of some unique polyphenols, including aspalathin. These protective plant compounds may help protect against the free radical damage that leads to conditions like diabetes, heart disease and potentially cancer.
From a micronutrient point of view and with the exception of fluoride and copper, the trace amounts of minerals in rooibos are negligible and are not going to offer the average consumer much, if any, nutritional benefits. There are anecdotal reports suggesting that if the tea is used as a fluid replacement throughout the day, it may help support electrolyte levels in athletes and sportspeople; however, research does not support this.
A notable property of rooibos is that it is particularly low in tannins (4.4%). This makes it a good choice for those who prefer a milder tasting tea or for those who experience digestive problems following the consumption of tannin-rich drinks.
What are the five main health benefits of rooibos tea?
1. Does not have a stimulatory effect
As a naturally caffeine-free beverage, rooibos may be drunk as a fluid replacement and is suitable for those who want to avoid, or are unable to tolerate, the stimulating effects of caffeine. Being naturally caffeine-free, rooibos doesn’t need to undergo a decaffeination process, so its rich polyphenol content remains unaffected.
2. May be heart-friendly
Drinking rooibos appears to have beneficial effects on blood pressure by inhibiting the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE), which causes blood vessels to contract and blood pressure to rise. The high flavonol content of rooibos tea also supports the cardiovascular system because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as its positive effect on blood fats, including cholesterol.
3. May benefit people with type 2 diabetes
Rich in protective plant compounds, including polyphenols, drinking rooibos regularly may help protect against the oxidative damage associated with diabetes. Rooibos is a rich source of the antioxidant aspalathin, which animal studies suggest helps to balance blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance. However, more studies are needed to confirm these effects in humans.
4. May benefit bone health
Although evidence is scarce, rooibos tea may promote bone health. This is because some studies report beneficial effects on osteoblasts, the cells involved with building bone. Further studies suggest fermented rooibos has an inhibitory effect on osteoclast activity, the cells which break down bone. These findings indicate a benefit for building and maintaining bone strength. However, because evidence is limited, further research is needed.
5. May reduce cancer risk
The potent antioxidant content in rooibos tea may help protect against the free radical damage associated with cancer. It’s worth noting that green, unfermented rooibos has higher levels of polyphenols than the traditional fermented version, and unsurprisingly demonstrates greater antimutagenic capabilities in test tube studies. However, research has not yet confirmed whether there are sufficient levels of bio-available antioxidants in rooibos to replicate these effects. Future research will hopefully establish whether the antioxidant benefits seen both in the test tube and in animal studies, translates into real anti-cancer benefits for humans.
Is rooibos safe for everyone?
Although more research is needed, rooibos is generally considered safe and free from side effects for most healthy people. That said, an isolated case reported that after drinking large volumes of rooibos the subject experienced an elevation of liver enzymes. Whether the experience of this individual is relevant to the wider population is not known and there may have been other contributory factors at work.
Furthermore, an animal study has suggested a possible interaction between green rooibos tea extract and a member of the statin group of cholesterol-lowering drugs. If you are taking this medication and enjoy unfermented rooibos, you should refer to your GP for guidance.
How do I include rooibos tea in my diet?
Thanks to its zero caffeine levels rooibos tea may be consumed at any time of the day. If you are aiming to reduce your caffeine intake replacing your regular caffeine-shot with a cup of rooibos may help you reach your goal. This is because its full-bodied flavour makes it an especially satisfying caffeine replacement.
How do I prepare rooibos tea?
Simply add freshly boiled water and allow to brew. The longer you leave the tea to infuse, the stronger and more robust the flavour will be. Studies suggest that allowing the tea to infuse for 10 minutes or longer promotes an optimal antioxidant-rich brew.
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This article was published on 30th September 2020.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post-graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.