Rooibos Tea: The Myth and the Magic

A rooibos chai tea blend. (Lisa Landers)

I’m not a coffee drinker, but I do love my tea. For years I greeted each day with a steaming mug of Earl Grey tea by my side. In the afternoon I would make another pot of black or green tea, sipping my way through the rest of the workday. But when I started having trouble sleeping a few years ago, I cut out almost all caffeine -- with the exception of small amounts of dark chocolate, crucial to my existence. Saying goodbye to tea was tough, but I found rooibos tea -- AKA “red tea” -- to be a satisfying, caffeine-free stand-in for my usual brew. I liked its earthy flavor, and it was full-bodied enough to support a splash of milk. Plus, I was still reaping the benefits of all those antioxidants and other magical chemical compounds found in tea -- or so I thought.

In truth, rooibos is not tea at all. It’s not even a distant relative to the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). Rooibos is an herbal infusion made from a plant called Aspalathus linearis that’s native to South Africa, where it thrives in the wild and as a cultivated crop. The word rooibos (pronounced roy-bus) translates as “red bush,” which refers to the way that the green, needle-shaped leaves turn red when they fall off the bush and oxidize in the sun. Most rooibos tea is made from these oxidized leaves, although a variety known as “green rooibos” is crafted from leaves that do not undergo oxidization.

Rooibos leaves are often blended with fragrant spices, dried fruits and other flavors the same way that black teas are. I’m partial to rooibos chai, like the one made by Numi of Oakland and Teavana’s Dosha Chai, a loose-leaf blend that contains cinnamon, coconut, ginger, cardamom, vanilla and rose blossoms.

Teavana’s Dosha Chai blend.
Teavana’s Dosha Chai blend. (Lisa Landers)

Although long popular in South Africa, rooibos was virtually unheard of in the U.S. until 2001, when Marin County based The Republic of Tea start selling it. Today, rooibos is sold by many other companies, but they all import it from South Africa, according to The Republic of Tea’s Minister of Commerce, Kristina Richens.

“There have been attempts to grow it in other places without any success. It only seems to thrive in South Africa’s unique subclimate,” Richens says.

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The company’s rooibos sales have climbed steadily over the past 14 years. Their current menu includes more than 30 blends. One of their biggest sellers is Double Red Rooibos, a concoction that contains rooibos powder (pulverized leaves) to enrich the taste and color of the brew.

The Republic of Tea’s most popular rooibos teas.
The Republic of Tea’s most popular rooibos teas. (Lisa Landers)

I probably assumed that rooibos was an actual tea because of blends like Double Red Rooibos, that do taste a little like black tea. The myth is also perpetrated by tea purveyors, some of whom market rooibos alongside oolongs, pu-erhs and other real teas without listing it as herbal or making a clear distinction to customers.

The good news is that despite not being an actual, antioxidant-packed tea, studies suggest that rooibos does have some magic of its own to offer.

Beyond the Hype, Potential Health Benefits

Teavana offers multiple rooibos blends in their Corte Madera store.
Teavana offers multiple rooibos blends in their Corte Madera store. (Lisa Landers)

Hype about rooibos’ potential health benefits may have peaked in the U.S. last week when Time Magazine listed it as one of the 50 healthiest foods of all time. Although it’s tempting to write it off as just another trend set in motion by our superfood-obsessed culture, South Africans have long touted rooibos as a wonder bush with medicinal properties. For hundreds of years it's been purported to help alleviate symptoms associated with asthma, eczema, heartburn, insomnia and nausea, among other problems.

Evidence to support these claims is largely anecdotal, but there is a growing body of science-based research that suggests rooibos may offer a number of impressive health benefits.

One thing we do know for sure is that rooibos is rich in beneficial polyphenols, including two rare flavonoids known as aspalathin and nothofagin. Flavonoids are generally known for their potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and antiviral activities, many of which play a role in helping our bodies fend off chronic diseases. But studies of the specific flavonoids found in red tea have not been studied as extensively as others.

The South African Rooibos Council posted on its website a roundup of a wide range of promising studies conducted between 2009 and 2013, including research into rooibos’ ability to offer cardiovascular protection, help prevent diabetes, improve male fertility and inhibit the development skin cancer when applied topically.

The catch is that most of the studies to date have been conducted in test tubes or with rats, as opposed to actual human beings. That said, one clinical study out of South Africa did catch my eye. After 40 human volunteers drank six cups of fermented rooibos daily for six weeks, researchers found that the tea had significantly reduced “bad” cholesterol (LDL), and increased “good” cholesterol (HDL). The study also suggested “the antioxidant activity of the tea could be relevant in reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”

Regardless of what further research yields, it seems to me that there are already plenty of good reasons to swap your usual hot beverage for a mug of rooibos tea on occasion. It’s tasty, calorie- and caffeine-free, and perfect for washing down a piece of dark chocolate.

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Disclaimer: Although adverse reactions to rooibos have not been reported, people that are ill, have pre-existing health conditions or are taking medications should consult a physician.

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