For years we have all heard about the health benefits of black tea, green tea, and certain herbal teas. But now, there is a new kid on the block garnering attention—rooibos (pronounced roy-boss). Is it really a promising nutraceutical, or just another cup of tea?
What Is Rooibos Tea?
Rooibos tea goes by its botanical name Aspalathus linearis in scientific studies. It is harvested from an evergreen shrub that grows natively in a small area of South America in the mountainous region of Cederberg near the Cape of Good Hope. Unlike green tea, black tea, and white tea, rooibos tea’s caffeine level is nonexistent, and rooibos is low in tannins.
In truth, rooibos tea isn’t classified as a traditional tea, as it does not contain any Camellia sinensis leaves, but is instead classified as an herbal tea, or tisane. Rooibos tea’s taste can best be described as slightly sweet and delicately aromatic. Many people who enjoy drinking rooibos tea mention its floral and earthy notes that are reminiscent of hibiscus.
Rooibos tea has been available for quite some time, and perhaps you’ve already been enjoying its health benefits under a different name—African Red Bush Tea or red tea. The leaves and stems are both harvested to create this nutrient-dense herbal tea. The more it is exposed to oxygen, the redder in color it becomes, and the more intense the flavor becomes. This is considered “fermented rooibos tea,” or red rooibos tea.
When the harvested leaves and stems of the Aspalathus linearis shrub are treated to prevent oxidation, the result is referred to as green rooibos tea or unfermented rooibos tea. The flavor is less floral and more woodsy, with just a hint of sweetness. It is important to point out that much of the scientific research conducted thus far indicates that unfermented rooibos contains more powerful antioxidants than fermented red rooibos tea does.
History of Rooibos Tea
As mentioned, rooibos is a South African evergreen shrub that grows in the mountains near the Cape of Good Hope. This area of South Africa is one of the most biologically and ecologically diverse regions on the continent. Today, South Africa is still the only country producing rooibos tea, and it is estimated that nearly 15,000 tons are produced annually, with the majority being exported around the world, with Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, being the primary importers.
Aspalathus linearis is actually a member of the legume family. This shrub blooms every spring and produces vibrant yellow flowers. Each blossom then produces a legume pod that houses a single seed. When ripe, the seed pops out of the pod and falls to the ground. Folklore says that early adopters of rooibos often hunted in anthills to find the precious seeds for replanting. Today the seeds are still prized, and when they appear, usually the farmers will sift the dirt around the base of each plant to make sure they find every seed the shrub has produced for the year.
Rooibos has been used for generations by native cultures in South Africa for many of its traditional medicinal benefits. According to the South African Rooibos Council, rooibos tea may:
- Slow the development of cancerous skin lesions
- Prevent cancerous cells from multiplying
- Increase antioxidants in the liver
- Protect the brain against oxidative damage
- Fight free radicals
- Prevent oxidative stress
- Soothe infant colic symptoms
- Relieve seasonal allergies
- Induce sleep and relaxation
- Relieve digestive distress including diarrhea
Rooibos Tea Nutrients
So what makes this herbal tea such a nutritional powerhouse? According to the South African Rooibos Council, rooibos tea is:
- Naturally caffeine free
- A good source of antioxidants, including aspalathin
- Low in tannins
Active compounds in rooibos tea include:
Other active polyphenols include:
- Orientin: This is a flavonoid with a variety of beneficial properties, including acting as an antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, radiation protective, and antidepressant.
- Aspalathin: A powerful antioxidant only found in rooibos tea. This is one of the phytonutrients that displays the highest concentration in unfermented rooibos tea. Aspalathin demonstrates anti-diabetic effects, as it can lower blood sugar levels and may relieve vascular inflammation according to researchers.
- Nothofagin: This antioxidant is found in rooibos tea and New Zealand red beech. It is often studied in conjunction with aspalathin for its anti-inflammatory properties.
- Isoorientin: Another flavonoid that acts as a radical scavenger and antineoplastic agent. It is currently being studied for its anti-inflammatory properties and how it interacts with cancer cells.
- Quercetin: A powerful antioxidant that is found in red grapes, citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables, and rooibos tea, quercetin demonstrates chemopreventive activities and may play a role in reducing cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
6 Science-Backed Rooibos Tea Health Benefits
1. Cardiovascular Protection
A study published in the journal Food & Function indicates that rooibos tea offers anti-diabetic effects and strong anti-inflammatory properties that show potential as a complementary therapeutic and functional food for heart disease.
The researchers from Stellenbosch University in South Africa examined the therapeutic potential of whole plant extracts and isolated active ingredients of rooibos tea and how they may benefit cardiovascular health. They believe rooibos tea’s bioactivity helps modulate the immune system, adrenal system, and lipid metabolism.
2. Blood Glucose Level Regulation
As noted above, rooibos demonstrates anti-diabetic activity, and according to a meta-analysis and systematic review published in the journal Molecules, blood glucose levels were significantly lower in diabetic animal models when treated with rooibos extract.
The researchers from Sagami Women’s University in Japan note rare adverse effects on the liver, and they urge further research and clinical trials to help determine safe and effective doses for treating diabetes. The authors also note that rooibos tea has the potential to be developed into a natural nutraceutical that may help prevent or delay the onset of diabetes.
3. Potential Treatment for Colorectal Cancer
A recent study published in the journal Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy identifies that orientin found in both rooibos tea and passion fruit demonstrates anti-proliferative effects against colorectal cancer in animal models. The authors of the study indicate that orientin improves tumor markers significantly.
While in its early stages of exploration, research on orientin demonstrates that the compound exerts anti-inflammatory power against inflammatory mast cells. The researchers urge further study and mention that orientin may have the potential to be developed into a promising cancer treatment.
4. Improves the Appearance of Wrinkles
Rooibos tea contains alpha hydroxy acid, a compound found in many anti-aging creams and chemical peels. A study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science compared ginkgo biloba and rooibos head-to-head in the treatment of wrinkles. When applied topically, gingko biloba significantly improved skin moisture, but researchers found that rooibos tea was more than twice as effective on wrinkle reduction.
5. Enhanced Liver Function
In a comprehensive study on the antioxidative effectiveness of rooibos herbal tea, researchers from the Oxidative Stress Research Centre in South Africa note that there is a difference between unfermented green rooibos and fermented rooibos. The researchers specifically state that daily consumption of unfermented rooibos may benefit liver function due to enhanced antioxidant status in the liver.
6. Brain Protection
In a study published in the journal PLoS One, rooibos tea was studied to determine its effect on the brain. Researchers found that rooibos tea positively affects many Alzheimer’s disease markers in rat brains, including reverse stress-related metabolites, restoration of stress-induced protein degradation, and the prevention of lipid oxidation. Authors of the study urge well-controlled clinical trials of rooibos tea for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, as well as other chronic diseases caused by free radicals.
Tips for Preparing the Perfect Cup of Rooibos Tea
Rooibos tea can be enjoyed hot or cold, and even as a latte or cappuccino. To gain the most significant health benefits of rooibos tea, the loose leaf tea is believed to be better than conventional rooibos tea bags. And, when you can, choose organically grown rooibos over conventionally grown rooibos.
- Bring pure or filtered water to a boil. Do not use distilled water as it can interfere with the nutrients.
- Scoop 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves into a tea infuser and place in your favorite 10-ounce to 12-ounce mug. Double or triple the ingredients if you want more cups of rooibos.
- Carefully pour 8 ounces of boiling water over the tea infuser, and allow it to steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
- The longer it steeps, the more antioxidants will be activated and released.
- If desired, you can add milk or a plant-based creamer and a touch of honey as a sweetener.
If you want to drink rooibos tea chilled as iced tea, use 2 heaping teaspoons of rooibos tea leaves, and steep for 15 minutes. Next, allow it to come to room temperature before you pour it over ice. It is especially nice with a slice of orange or lemon and a dash of real maple syrup.
Precautions and Side Effects of Rooibos Tea
Rooibos tea can interfere with the proper metabolism of medications for conditions including hyperglycemia and dyslipidemia. Talk to your physician before drinking rooibos tea if you have either of these conditions.
Rooibos has demonstrated estrogenic activity in clinical trials, which means it can increase the production of estrogen. Individuals with breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, endometrial cancer, or prostate cancer should consult with their medical team before consuming any type of rooibos tea. In addition, individuals at a higher risk for hormone-sensitive cancers and those with hormone-related diseases should speak to their doctors before drinking rooibos tea.
Drinking high amounts of rooibos tea can increase liver enzymes, sometimes to a dangerous level, leading to long-term liver problems. If you have any diagnosed liver problem, talk to your doctor before drinking rooibos tea.
Consuming high concentrations of rooibos tea for an extended period of time can harm kidney function and impair fertility in men. This was demonstrated in an animal study published in the First International Journal of Andrology-Andrologia.
There have been reports of salmonella in rooibos tea due to inferior or inadequate processing methods. It is imperative that you choose rooibos tea from a reputable manufacturer that employs safe processing methods to avoid contamination. And it is crucial to always use boiling water to make rooibos tea to kill potentially dangerous microorganisms, according to Nutritional Outlook.