One of the great pleasures of autumn is wrapping your hands around a warm mug and breathing the steam of a delicious beverage before you begin to sip. Many find relaxation in the simple act of holding the mug, which makes it a great habit before sleep.
Warm drinks aren’t limited to caffeinated coffee and tea or sugary hot chocolate. I’ve been an avid herbal-tea drinker for years and have found joy in many hot drinks that have proven health benefits and no damaging side effects, like peppermint tea.
Rooibos, also known as African redbush tea, has become widely available in North America over the past 20 years. It became a staple in my kitchen soon after we first tried it. My kids love “red tea” with milk and honey, and I’m happy to give it to them because it has no caffeine and (even with honey) much less sugar than hot chocolate!
I’ve heard that rooibos (pronounced “roy boss”) is supposed to contain cancer-fighting antioxidants and valuable nutrients, but I’d never investigated the details until now.
Let’s learn more about this caffeine-free coffee alternative!
What Is Rooibos Tea?
Sometimes the word “tea” means a specific plant, Camellia sinensis. Sometimes “tea” means any beverage made by infusing plant material in water.
Rooibos is a tea only in that more general sense. Rooibos is made from Aspalathus linearis, a completely different plant from those that make black, green, and white teas. It’s a short, bushy plant in the legume family, which means that people allergic to peanuts or beans should be cautious trying rooibos. The tea is made from the dried leaves of the plant.
Most rooibos that is sold for brewing is fermented (like black tea) and has a distinctive orangey-red color. Fermentation happens naturally when the leaves are bruised with rollers and left in piles for a while before they are spread out to dry. Like herbs and spices dried in the open air, rooibos needs to be treated to kill any Salmonella contamination; it’s typically steam-pasteurized.
What does rooibos taste like?
On its own, without anything added, rooibos tea tastes somewhat like black tea but a bit different–like a new flavor of tea, with a vague hint of something tangy, like peach or maybe even mustard. It feels slightly acidic in my mouth, but it doesn’t have the bitterness of black or green tea.
I like to mellow it out with small amounts of milk and honey. Then I have a peachy-colored beverage that tastes rich and smooth, with hints of nuts and vanilla.
Packaged red teas often combine rooibos with spices, citrus peel, or flavor extracts. I prefer brewing plain rooibos and seasoning it myself.
Rooibos tea typically tastes much better than the dry leaves smell! They have kind of a tobacco or barn smell that may waft up in the steam when you add the hot water, but this smell should dissipate before the tea is ready to drink. If there’s a lingering unpleasant aroma in your tea, try brewing it for a shorter time.
I’ve never tried green (unfermented) rooibos, but I hear that it tastes similar to green tea.
How do you make rooibos tea?
Like any tea, rooibos is much less expensive if you buy loose tea from a bulk bin than if you buy teabags. I get mine at the food co-op, where the price per pound looks high, but a 2-cup jar full weighs only about 1/4 pound, and that will make about 100 cups at just a few cents each–whereas teabags are at least 20 cents each! Loose tea in a pretty canister probably will cost less than teabags, too, but you’ll have to compare prices in your local store.
If you’re using loose tea, you’ll need an infuser with very small holes because the needle-like leaves of rooibos are tiny. These look perfect. The infuser I’ve had for many years works well enough that I haven’t replaced it, but the fact that its metal mesh is folded into the round shape means that it has grooves that trap tea leaves–it’s hard to get it completely clean–so I don’t recommend a folded design.
Simply toss some rooibos into your infuser and pour boiling water on it. Experiment to find how much you need to put into your infuser to get the tea strength you want in the mug you like–1 teaspoon may be enough.
Rooibos brews quickly because of its small leaves. It will be ready in 2 minutes or less, although it may be too hot to sip for a while!
If you prefer iced tea, make a strong brew of rooibos in hot water, let it cool, and pour over ice cubes.
Health Benefits of Rooibos Tea
Although I’ve been drinking rooibos regularly for about 15 years, and I feel like it helps when I have a cold, flu, migraine, or menstrual cramps, I’ve only read little bits of information about rooibos in health-food newsletters and so forth. Now I’ll dig into what the scientific research has found!
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. My profession is data management for research studies, so I’ve read a lot of scientific papers (and written some) and I know how a research study should be properly conducted. I’ve done my best to report accurately on what science has shown about rooibos, but I am not qualified to give official medical advice.
Is Rooibos Nutritious?
Some companies selling rooibos make it sound like it’s just packed with vitamins and minerals, but that’s an exaggeration. Rooibos contains trace amounts of B vitamins, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc–but a cup of red tea contains less than 1% of the Daily Value of any of these nutrients. Relax with your rooibos while honey baked lentils and baked squash are in the oven, and let that tasty, thrifty dinner supply the nutrition!
The more important phytochemicals in rooibos are things that aren’t listed in Nutrition Facts: antioxidants, some of which aren’t found in any other edible plant!
Rooibos Fights Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress is caused by an excess of free radicals, unstable molecules that are created by some normal body processes but also by exposure to pollution, radiation, tobacco, and some medications. These unstable molecules need electrons to stabilize themselves, so they “steal” electrons from other nearby molecules. Our bodies are designed to tolerate some electron-stealing. Eating a varied diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits supplies us with common antioxidants like Vitamin C, which repair cell damage caused by oxidative stress.
- Oxidative stress contributes to liver cancer by damaging cells so that they become more vulnerable to DNA mutations.
- Once cancer has begun, ongoing oxidative stress reduces cells’ ability to repair themselves and increases the speed of cancer cell division, so the cancer spreads faster.
- Hepatitis C and other viruses that attack the liver increase oxidative stress on the liver; the higher the oxidative stress, the more likely you are to develop cancer from a viral infection.
- Liver problems caused by alcohol drinking, obesity, diabetes, and tobacco smoking all are more serious in people with high oxidative stress.
- Aflatoxins, produced by fungi on crops such as peanuts, cause mutations in a cancer-preventing gene such that liver cancer can get started. Oxidative stress encourages these mutations.
Oxidative stress isn’t just a cause of cancer; it affects many of our body processes. Rats under oxidative stress had better sperm quality when they drank rooibos.
Aspalathin is an antioxidant found only in rooibos. It improves hyperglycemia and glucose intolerance in obese diabetic mice and also reduces vascular inflammation caused by high blood glucose, which suggests that rooibos may help to prevent or treat diabetes. Aspalathin also protects the heart and lowers blood pressure.
This rat study found that rooibos worked in four different ways to reduce oxidative stress on the brain caused by chronic stressful experiences. There’s a good reason to reach for rooibos instead of coffee, at least some of the time! Unlike a caffeinated beverage, rooibos won’t make you feel jumpy or speed up your heartbeat. I’ve noticed that drinking rooibos often helps me feel calmer.
What Else Can Rooibos Do?
Rat studies show some evidence that rooibos protects our brains:
- It prevents some age-related brain damage.
- Rats had less brain damage after a stroke if they’d been drinking rooibos for 7 weeks.
- When pregnant rats drank rooibos, their babies were protected from central nervous system damage caused by environmental toxins like Bisphenol A.
Rooibos can enhance the antimicrobial effect of penicillin and possibly other antibiotics (although it does not work well with nystatin). Although rooibos is not antimicrobial on its own, drinking it when you take your antibiotic may help your body fight the infection and/or reduce antibiotic side effects.
Rooibos calms spasms and lowers blood pressure. This antispasmodic effect makes rooibos helpful in controlling diarrhea and urinary urgency. Calming spasms could also help with cramps of any kind. Because migraines are connected to blood vessel constrictions, and because my headaches often begin with neck and shoulder spasms, rooibos may help to calm the pain more than other warm drinks!
Some of the effects of rooibos and other teas may come not from the plant chemistry but from the soothing feeling of any hot beverage: holding a nice warm cup, breathing steam, and feeling warmed from the inside out.
- Even ordinary black tea can reduce anxiety after a stressful experience by up to 25%–at least for British people who have strong cultural associations with tea as a calming factor.
- Other studies in other countries found that holding a hot cup helps us perceive others more kindly, and that hot fruit juice reduces cold symptoms more than the same juice served cold.
- At least 8 other herbal teas help soothe anxiety.
- And of course, mindfulness affects our response to tea, just as mindful eating affects our metabolism of food.
With that in mind, let’s think about whether rooibos is really what we need.
Is Buying South African Rooibos Good Stewardship?
Rooibos grows only in a certain region of South Africa. That means that when we buy it in North America, it’s been shipped around the world, which doesn’t sound environmentally responsible! But the dried leaves are so lightweight and don’t require refrigeration, the energy expended to transport them must be very little.
The bigger concerns are whether rooibos is damaging the environment where it’s grown and whether our importation of rooibos is exploiting African farmers.
Rooibos grows in poor-quality, acidic soil and handles drought well, so it survives where many other crops can’t. Rooibos plants work symbiotically with soil bacteria to fix nitrogen so that the plants do not need dangerous nitrogen fertilizer that runs off into our water supply.
Some farmers have found that growing wild rooibos is better than cultivating the domesticated variety–wild rooibos is more resilient to drought and less depleting of soil nutrients, and the plants live longer. However, native African and mixed-race farmers still struggle to make a living on the small parcels of land they’ve had since white settlers seized their large farms generations ago. Less than 7% of rooibos acreage is owned by the native African and mixed-race people who make up about 90% of South Africa’s population!
Injustices like that are a good reason to buy fair-trade rooibos, which is grown by cooperatives of small farmers who are paid fairly for their crops. We also can support good farming practices and reduce our pesticide exposure by choosing organic rooibos. It’s a little more expensive for us as consumers, but we can save money by buying loose tea instead of tea bags. Here are some reasonably-priced options:
Rooibos is one item I think is worth importing from far away! But if it’s so good at growing in poor soil and drought, why can’t it be grown in more parts of the world?
This site says South Africa’s Cederberg region has the unique climate and soil pH rooibos requires . . . but this site gives instructions for growing rooibos in a greenhouse and says it will grow outdoors in the warmest parts of the United States. Maybe it could be a new crop for some regions affected by climate change?
Pique Tea also has organic rooibos instant tea packets which are super convenient for on the go. While you’re ordering you can get 10% off any of their fall collections with the code “Kitchen10” at checkout!
The “Bottom of the Mug” on Rooibos Tea
African redbush tea can be a great alternative to coffee or black, green, or white tea when you want a caffeine-free hot drink–or try it iced!
Scientific findings are encouraging but mostly based on animal studies, so far. Like xylitol and cannabidiol oil, rooibos seems to be good for all kinds of things! Although some of the benefits may be exaggerated, there’s no reason to think rooibos is bad for you unless you’re allergic to it.
Health benefits may include cancer and diabetes prevention, protection of the liver and heart, reduced effects of brain injury and aging, relief from muscle spasms, improved bone density, improved sperm quality, prenatal protection from neurotoxins, and enhanced effect of antibiotics.
The most environmentally and socially responsible way to buy rooibos is organic, fair-trade, loose tea with minimal packaging. If possible, buy from a local store in your own repurposed container.