Rooibos is a type of herbal tea often consumed as an alternative to black tea. It is becoming increasingly popular in the United Kingdom, with most major tea brands now stocking their own varieties and many tearooms, hotels, and restaurants also selling it by the cup or the pot.
But what is rooibos tea? Is it good for you? And what are the supposed health benefits of this drink?
What is Rooibos Tea?
The name rooibos literally translates to “red bush” in Afrikaans, which is why it is often sold as “redbush” in the UK. It is also known as “red tea”, due to the colour of both the dried leaves and the tea itself, and it is native to South Africa.
The History of Red Tea
Legend has it that red tea has been consumed in South Africa for thousands of years, and while these claims can’t be verified, we do know that it has been consumed by the locals for at least 200 years.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the life cycle of rooibos began in the early 20th century, as this is when a Russian immigrant by the name of Benjamin Ginsberg began experimenting with rooibos curing methods.
Ginsberg became the first to cultivate the tea for trade purposes and, throughout the 20th century, many others rushed to cultivate the plant, sending the price of rooibos seeds soaring and increasing production to the point where large amounts could be shipped to tea drinkers worldwide.
Rooibos tea provides a number of health benefits, most of which are provided by its high antioxidant and nutrient content, as described below.
1. It is Full of Antioxidants
Rooibos tea contains an abundance of antioxidants, free-radical fighting compounds that may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer. (1) There is still a lot that we don’t know about the role antioxidants play in preventing cancer and heart disease, but countess studies have shown that reducing oxidative stress may lead to a reduced risk of chronic disease. (2)
Studies have also shown that several of the antioxidants found in red tea may play a role in reducing tumour growth and even killing cancer cells. (3) These studies were conducted on isolated antioxidants as opposed to red tea itself, and these antioxidants can be found in many teas and indeed many other plant-based foods.
We can’t know for sure if there are enough of these antioxidants in red tea to have the same effect or even if this effect will translate to real-life cases, so while it’s certainly an interesting field of study and one that holds promise for all tea drinkers, we’re a long way from knowing with any degree of certainty if tea consumption can reduce cancer growth.
2. Weight Loss
Red tea does not contain caffeine, which can impact the resting metabolic rate and potentially lead to more calories burned over the course of the day. (4) But it’s still often labelled as a weight loss drink, and a lot of this seems to be the result of a single study performed on an antioxidant compound by the name of aspalathin.
This study gave a large concentration of aspalathin to rodents and noted a significant drop in bodyweight over time. But as promising as this was, no human study has been able to replicate those results, and even if they did, you would need to drink half a dozen cups (at least) of rooibos a day to get the same amount of aspalathin.
It’s not all bad news, though. The same compound may also possess an anti-diabetic effect, with studies suggesting that it could be used in the treatment of type-2 diabetes. (5) What’s more, because rooibos is naturally sweet, calorie-free, and can be used in place of sweetened tea, it can help tea drinkers cut down the amount of calories and sugar they consume throughout the day, which in turn could lead to weight loss.
3. It is Naturally Caffeine Free
All varieties of red tea, including the rooibos and honeybush sold for consumption, are naturally caffeine-free. This, in addition to their similarities to black tea, make them a great evening/night-time drink for tea lovers who want the satisfaction of a late-night cup of tea without the caffeine that will keep them up all night.
It can also be a great alternative for tea drinkers keen to reduce their caffeine content without missing out on their favourite drink. And this is important because, while caffeine is well tolerated by most consumers, excessive consumption can lead to an array of physiological issues in some users including heart palpitations, anxiety, and more. (6)
It can also cause restlessness and insomnia. And, if someone who uses caffeine every day doesn’t get their fix, they can be extra irritable and may also suffer from fatigue and low energy levels.
4. It is an Anti-Inflammatory
Not only can aspalathin potentially help control blood sugar levels, but it may also act as an anti-inflammatory in combination with nothofagin, another antioxidant found in abundance in rooibos tea. (7)
These compounds are believed to work by blocking inflammation precursors, thus preventing an inflammatory response, which in turn could produce several health benefits. One 2009 study tested the anti-inflammatory effects of rooibos tea on rats and concluded that it could be used to prevent DNA damage and inflammation and that this, combined with the fact that it is caffeine free and safe to consume, could make it a potent weapon in the treatment of oxidative stress in children. (8)
Side Effects of Rooibos Tea
Both rooibos tea and honeybush tea are very safe, although rare side effects have been reported. Some of the compounds found in this tea have displayed estronic activity, which has led some experts to advise against consumption in women being treated for breast cancer, but you would need to consume a lot of the tea for these to be cause for concern. (9)
Excessive consumption of rooibos tea is not advised and if you are worried about potential allergic reactions, contraindications, medical conditions, or a pregnancy, then you should consult with your doctor first.
What Does Red Tea Taste Like?
Opinion on rooibos tea is divided. We like to think of the taste as a sweeter, weaker black tea, almost like a lightly steeped first flush Darjeeling. This is especially true when it has been mixed with honeybush tea. But we have heard from friends who dismiss the taste as too “earthy”.
Generally, we find that people who drink a lot of black tea easily adapt to the taste of red tea, but that herbal tea drinkers are more likely to find the taste unpleasant.
Unlike black tea, it is not easy to over-steep red tea, so you can brew for several minutes over the recommended time without creating a bitter drink.
How to Drink Red Tea
Rooibos tea can be consumed just like black tea. This is actually one of the big selling points. If you like your tea with milk and two sugars, add milk and two sugars (or use a milk substitute). You will need to steep red tea leaves for a little longer than you would black tea leaves.
Red Bush versus Honeybush
Honeybush is another South African plant whose leaves are used to produce a caffeine-free tea. It tastes very similar to rooibos, albeit slightly sweeter, and it has a rich, honey-like smell, which is where it gets its name.
Many UK tea companies sell a mix of rooibos and honeybush, some of which are simply labelled as “red tea”. But if you don’t like the way that rooibos tastes then it’s unlikely that you will enjoy the taste of honeybush.