Rooibos tea does boost your health
Anna-Marie Smith reports on the results of scientific research into the beneficial effects of this popular South African beverage
THIS indigenous zero caffeine beverage of two flavours — the traditional red and unfermented green varieties of the fynbos species aspalathus linearis — is the only plant to contain the antioxidant aspalathin and has grown in the Western Cape Cedarberg region for 300 years.
Not only is rooibos tea’s antioxidant potency in humans a proved scientific fact, it is also the only segment of the local tea market showing commercial growth.
This remarkable plant that has only been farmed since 1930 is gaining international popularity, showing export growth to more than 30 countries, increasing from just under 2 000 tonnes in 1999, to just over 6 000 tonnes last year, with an annual GDP contribution of R500m.
Although more rooibos tea is consumed abroad, in SA’s provinces Gauteng leads at 35,4%, followed by Limpopo and Mpumalanga at 24,4%, Western Cape 14,4%, KwaZulu-Natal 11,6%, Eastern Cape 7,5% and Northern Cape and Free State 6,7%.
For those aspiring to a healthier lifestyle the attraction lies in the knowledge of the tea’s powerful health benefits. The SA Rooibos Council’s annual investment of R1m in researching the health properties of rooibos has assisted scientists in proving that the active compounds in rooibos are bioavailable and metabolised (converted) in the body.
A collaborative study by scientists at four international research facilities has found the first clinical evidence that drinking rooibos tea significantly increases the antioxidant capacity in human blood, boosting the body’s natural defences. Antioxidants bind with free radicals, preventing them from damaging cells and causing cancer, or oxidising with cholesterol to clog blood vessels resulting in heart attacks or strokes.
Researchers in Rome and Glasgow found that the antioxidant capacity in the blood of 15 healthy volunteers peaked an hour after drinking 500ml of rooibos tea. Both traditional and green rooibos had a significant effect.
“After an hour, the plasma antioxidant levels start to drop and that is why we recommend drinking up to six cups of rooibos spaced throughout the day for a sustained health benefit,” says Professor Jeanine Marnewick, of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
Professor Lizette Joubert, one of SA’s leading rooibos researchers, working on the quality and chemical composition of rooibos at SA’s Agricultural Research Council, says: “This new research proves that the compounds in rooibos are potent enough to have a measurable effect on the antioxidant capacity of the blood.”
Mientjie Mouton, chairman of the product research committee of the SA Rooibos Council, says this study underlines the value of rooibos as a widely available and affordable source of dietary antioxidants.
“It is very encouraging that leading research institutions around the world are working on rooibos and producing such promising results.
“There is also a great deal of work being done by local rooibos researchers, and we will continue to invest in this research.”
This year the council is supporting research projects at several local universities and science councils focusing on how rooibos can counter cancer and stress, as well as the link between rooibos and exercise. A project on rooibos and obesity has been approved for funding next year.
Another development is the newly launched rooibos welcome campaign that is gaining momentum on the back of the tea’s internationally recognised scientific status and which the SA Rooibos Council is promoting as SA’s national gesture of welcome.
A study at the University of Stellenbosch found that according to a specially developed flavour wheel Rooibos’s indigenous aroma and taste is best enjoyed in a freshly brewed cup of hot tea or in a rejuvenating glass of iced tea.
The SA Rooibos Council is in the process of registering rooibos as a geographic indicator for its specific geographic area, similar to Champagne in France. If successful, this will be a first for SA.