It’s on the Starbucks menu, and it’s in bottled “red tea” drinks in retail and convenience stores across the globe; I found it once in a tiny, out-of-the-way noodle bar in the Japanese city of Yokohama. It is rooibos, the uniquely South African herbal tea that is garnering a worldwide reputation its health benefits. Here are some reasons why it should be your daily drink of choice.
By Marika Sboros
Strictly speaking, rooibos isn’t a tea, as it is unrelated to the traditional tea plant (Camellia sinensis). It is a herb – a broom-like member of the legume family of plants that includes peas, beans, peanuts and alfalfa.
Apart from the semantics of botanical science, rooibos’s reputation as a health aid is blooming. It dates back centuries, to when it grew wild on the slopes of the Cederberg mountains outside Cape Town, and was a favoured brew of the region’s indigenous people.
The needle-like leaves of the rooibos plant are usually oxidised in a fermentation process similar to that used in tea processing terminology. This produces its distinctive reddish-brown colour and enhances the flavour when drunk as a herbal infusion.
Rooibos (also called “rooibosch” as a nod to Dutch origins, and “red bush” in English) is available in an unoxidised “green” form, similar to the way green tea is produced. That gives it a different colour, and slightly grassy flavor, and makes it more expensive. It comes in organic versions (the only ones I’d ever drink, but that’s not to say there are any fewer health benefits from products that aren’t organic.)
Most research on health benefits is on animals, and while many substances are shown to cure things like cancer in rats, just as many do nothing at all for humans. Experts say proper clinical trials would need thousands of volunteers monitored for 10 years – a big, costly ask.
It helps that rooibos’s active ingredients are bioavailable. Your body is able to metabolise (break down) the key antioxidants in rooibos, and absorb unmetabolised antioxidants into the bloodstream.
The Rooibos Council of South Africa on its website (http://www.sarooibos.co.za ), says there’s a wealth of research in peer-reviewed journals since the 1960s; and scientists locally internationally are investigating the complex composition, chemistry and bioactivity of rooibos to help explain how it protects the human body against disease, and promotes health and longevity.
The Council also says most rooibos researchers recommend the complete rooibos extract (as a tea, and six cups staggered throughout the day) rather than taking individual, isolated compounds.
Here are seven top reasons why you should swig six cups of this brew regularly:
1. Rooibos fights cancer – Rooibos contains powerful antioxidants with strong cancer-fighting effects. Stellenbosch University research published in April 2014, suggests that people who spend a lot of time in the sun should consider using a skin-care product containing rooibos extracts to prevent the development of skin cancer and to delay the onset of malignant tumours.
2. Rooibos is cardioprotective – in other words, it protects your ticker – Rooibos has a high concentration of two polyphenol antioxidants, aspalathin and nothofagin, that fight free radical damage – toxic by products of the body’s metabolic processes – and have anti-inflammatory properties that protect against heart disease. Small South African studies in humans support the beverage as good for hearts.
3. Rooibos is chock-a-block with minerals – It contains magnesium essential for the nervous system, calcium and manganese for strong teeth and bones, zinc for metabolism and immune system, and iron that is critical for helping blood and muscles get oxygen to all the cells that need it. Most black teas have tannins that prevent iron absorption. Rooibos tea has less than half the tannins of black tea, and actively helps the body to absorb iron.
4. Rooibos is helpful for type 2 diabetics – A team of South African researchers has added more evidence suggesting that rooibos may be beneficial in countering diabetes with glucose-moderating effects. Japanese research suggests that the main antioxidant in green rooibos, aspalathin, helps muscle cells to use glucose more effectively, and maintain normal blood sugar levels.
5. Rooibos protects the liver – It can help to prevent the development of fatty liver disease – a potentially serious condition where fat accumulates in liver cells . It also helps damaged liver tissue to regenerate, and is recommended as an effective way to prevent and treat liver disease
6. Rooibos is a digestive aid – It eases stomach cramps and diarrhoea thanks to the calming effect of its flavonoids on the digestive system.
7. Rooibos protects grey matter – If you want to keep your thinking sharp, and reduce the risk of dementia diseases such as Alzheimer’s, rooibos should be your drink of choice.
There are many other reasons to drink rooibos, including that it prolongs fertility and delays ageing – even if currently only in Japanese quail hens. There is also a lucrative industry of beauty and skin-care products with rooibos as the main ingredient.
The South African Rooibos Council and the industry in general are confident of the plant’s commercial value, and so they should be. The recent reciprocal agreement SA and the European Union protecting the rooibos trademark under Geographical Indicators framework of South Africa’s intellectual property (IP) laws has been hailed as a major step in protecting South African products and promoting economic growth and competitiveness.
There’s even such a thing as a “Rooibosch Curtain”, which I first read about in Biznews recently. It “follows the contours of South African and Namibian national borders, and signifies an invisible line separating modernity inside its geographic enclosure and much more primitive infrastructure, building codes and legal codes governing everyday business practice beyond them into the African wilds”.