You know about green, black, and white teas… but red?

That’s another name for rooibos, red tea. Sometimes referred to as red bush. If you’re an American, you may barely know anything about it.

No surprise there, as its history in the United States is quite short. Rooibos only grows in South Africa and because of various anti-apartheid trade sanctions, trying to import it prior to 1994 was not feasible.

100% pure organic rooibosThe Republic of Tea was the first major company to import it in the year 2001. Celestial Seasonings, Numi, Yogi, Alvita, Tazo and other brands you see at places like Whole Foods didn’t follow on until later. In fact, many big brands have only been selling it in the states for 5 to 7 years now.

Starbucks vanilla rooibos latte was added to their menu, only to be discontinued. Not enough people knew what it was to order it!

If you don’t know much about it, don’t feel bad. So what is red tea good for?

Possibly a lot.

The health benefits of rooibos are in the earliest innings of research. To date, only 6 clinical trials are listed in the PubMed database for it. Outside of those, there are less than 200 pieces of medical literature.

That’s almost nothing. Compare that to green tea, which has over 1,000 trials and 25,000 pieces of literature listed.

Regardless, the early findings of the Aspalathus linearis plant are worth taking note of. Plus, some of the perks don’t need clinical studies to prove… like the fact that it’s naturally caffeine free and has low tannin content (1).

Rooibos pronunciation

Here in the states, almost everyone says it wrong. You will hear even health gurus in the media butcher the name when they say this tea. It’s not roo-boos or roo-e-boes. Nor is it “the Marco Rubio tea” as we heard one person repeatedly call it throughout the 2016 election, because he gave up on how to say it right.

In English, the correct pronunciation of rooibos is with two syllables, not three. At least that’s how the South Africans enunciate it. They say ROY-boss, with more emphasis being placed on the first syllable versus the last. The “boss” is sometimes pronounced boas, as in boast without the “t” at the end.

What is rooibos tea?

what rooibos plant looks like

Aspalathus linearis. photo credit: Winfried Bruenken [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Black, white, and green tea (including matcha) are all made from the same plant; Camellia sinensis. What differentiates each type is how the leaves are harvested and processed.

Red bush tea, or rooibos, is an herbal tea.

Unlike green and black tea, it is not made from the C. sinensis tea plant. The rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis) is a shrub-like bush of the Fabaceae family, which is same family that is responsible for peas, beans, and other legumes. However this plant is only a flowering species, as it does not produce any sort of bean-like pod. The beverage is made by brewing the dried needle-like leaves.

When freshly picked, these leaves are still green. Contrary to what many sources report, its signature red color is not the result of fermentation in the traditional sense, like how kombucha or sauerkraut is made. The meaning of fermentation in the tea industry means something different.

It typically involve adding bacteria or microorganisms. How rooibos is “fermented” is not much different than how apples turn brown after you cut them – it’s an enzymatic process that occurs with the leaves (2). They oxidize and turn a reddish brown.

pure rooibos tea leaves, dried

By using varying degrees of heat, this same fermentation process produces green, white, and black tea from the C. sinensis. Your classic black cup or tea is that which is fully fermented. Yes, sometimes microbial agents are used, but they’re not required.

There is a difference between fermented vs. unfermented rooibos, for both taste and potential health advantages.

The green or unfermented version involves inactivating or denaturing the polyphenol oxidases, to stop the browning process, right after the leaves are harvested. Like green tea, this often results in more antioxidants being intact.

What unfermented green rooibos tea tastes like is quite different. It’s not as sweet and has a milder flavor that’s more fruity rather than dessert-esque. You can buy organic green rooibios from Numi on Amazon, but we have yet to see it stocked at a Whole Foods in Los Angeles.

Similar to a fine Japanese green tea, there is a great deal of artisanal craft which is needed to create the best tasting rooibos tea. It’s not just as simple as picking the leaves. That’s why the flavor can range from surprisingly sweet to rather bland. When done right, even the local honey bees will conjure around the harvested crop due to its sweet aroma.

Where does it come from?

Rooibos tea comes from South Africa’s Cederberg mountain range, which is on the western side of the country, about 180 miles north of Cape Town. Cultivated rooibos can be found growing as far north as Nieuwoudtville and as far as south as Piketberg. The wild Cape rooibos tea grows in a much smaller area, in-between those two cities. The elevations its found range from 1,500 to 3,000 feet above sea level (450 to 900 meters).

map showing area where rooibos comes from

Within this unique mountainous terrain, it is believed that hunter-gatherers have lived for 10-20,000 years.  Herders, known as khoi, for at least the last 800 years. History shows that the collection and uses of wild rooibos tea “has always formed an integral part of the heritage” as far back as recorded history can show (3).

Even though this plant species has been documented in botany since 1768, exportation of it did not begin until the 1930’s.

wild red tea field in mountains

photo credit: South African Journal of Botany. Volume 77, Issue 4.

While there are commercial operations growing it, small independent farmers also play a crucial role in production. They harvest organic wild red tea in the remote and isolated areas in which they live. This is what provides a living for many of the people in these rural mountainous villages (4).

The leaves with the best flavor grow at the higher elevations.

Attempts to cultivate the plant outside of this specific region have all failed. The arid coastal climate, along with the sandy soil, create a perfect environment which is unlike anywhere else in the world.

That’s quite different than the C. sinensis plant, which produces the common caffeinated teas. It grows easily not just in China and Japan, but pretty much anywhere between the 42 north parallel and the 33 south parallel (5).

In other words, almost any elevated tropical and subtropical area will work for C. sinensis, while the red tea only has one spot in the entire world which can grow it.

Similar to the “capped” amount of maca available from the Peruvian mountains, it’s unlikely that supply will increase for red rooibos tea, given its finicky climate requirement. Given that global demand has been surging for red tea, record high prices have resulted.

With almost half of it consumed domestically in South Africa, there is only so much to go around for everyone else (6).

What does rooibos taste like?

A warm cup of this red-colored tea is completely smooth without bitterness, given that there is very little tannin content. The natural flavor can be described as a vanilla honey, with a hint of nutty caramel toffee. This flavor is naturally sweet, so most people drink it without any additional ingredients.

wild leopard vs. human encounter

In the front seat that’s Ian. In the back is one of us, Michael, taking the photo. To the side of the Land Rover is a wild leopard, which was an unexpected close encounter.

In February (during South Africa’s summer) it’s rainy season. That means the foliage is thick and you never know what animal will pop out.

While sitting parked with the engine off, this large leopard approached us and about 2 seconds after this photo was snapped, he looked up and had a stare down with Michael. The leopard fixated on his eyes, with only 3 or 4 feet between their faces. For obvious reasons, no photos were snapped by him during that!

Going back to Ian, he was born and raised in Johannesburg. He shared how as a kid he would be “bouncing off the walls” from sugary drinks, until his mom found that the flavor profile of rooibos was an enjoyable substitute that he accepted. There is no sugar in it, as the sweetness comes from the plant’s natural taste.

To determine glycemic index and glycemic loads, testing requires at least 10 volunteers who fast and then consume 50 grams of a food or drink, followed by blood sugar monitoring for 2 hours (7). The glycemic index of rooibos hasn’t been measured nor is it likely to be. Since it has zero calories and no sugar content, it should not impact blood sugar.

This makes the tea good for diabetics and anyone else who wants to avoid a glycemic rollercoaster. If even children can enjoy the taste, then you as an adult probably will too!

Honeybush vs. rooibos?

honeybush plant

A typical plant. source: South African Honeybush Tea Association

Yes, there is a difference between rooibos and honeybush. The two names are sometimes used synonymously and quite a few people we have encountered have thought they were the same thing. They’re not.

African honeybush is a close relative. Unlike rooibos which is one species, the term honeybush is used for 24 different species within the Cyclopia genus. It too is part of the legume family, Fabaceae.

Out of the different types of honeybush, these 3 are the most common for drinking:

  • Mountain tea (Cyclopia intermedia) – This is the most common species. Called bergtee locally, this grows further east starting at Port Elizabeth and into the Langkloof Valley.
  • Clopia maculate – This is the second most used species, though it has no common name as those outside the industry don’t differentiate it.
  • Coastal tea (Cyclopia genistoides) – Called kustee, this grows in the Western and South Cape.
  • Heidelberg tea (Cyclopia sessiliflora) – Grows around the mountain town of Heidelberg.

Rooibos grows in the mountains north of Cape Town, while you will find honeybush growing in Cape Town and to the east of it along the coast, in the fynbos botanical zone (biome).

map of where honeybush grows

Source: South African Honeybush Tea Association

These species of honeybush tea taste very similar, or really the same unless you have a highly trained palate. Its sweetness tends to be greater than rooibos, but its comparable nutty vanilla caramel flavor is weaker. As a result, you may need to use more to produce a tasty cup of tea. Honeybush is caffeine free,

Even in South Africa, the first time honeybush got sold commercially wasn’t until the mid to late 90’s (8). Probably because the insatiable demand for its cousin meant something similar had to be brought to market.

Numi sells it in bags and if you want an organic blend of both honeybush and rooibos, you can get that on Amazon from Pukka. It may be a better choice for those wanting some additional sugar-free sweetness.

Antioxidant content

Just like how the fermentation facts are often miscommunicated, so is the antioxidant content for this beverage.

Many major websites are claiming – with no sources mind you – that how much antioxidants there are in rooibos vs. green tea is double. That’s flat out wrong.

Someone must have flip-flopped their numbers early on in that game of telephone, because it’s actually the opposite. Asian green tea has 2x the antioxidants of the African red tea. Here are the ORAC values to prove it:

That may sound like bad news, but it’s not.

Why? Because the problem with green tea is that even the finest quality will have relatively high tannin content. That’s what gives you the stomach ache after you drink a lot of it. For many people, just one cup on an empty stomach is enough to make them nauseous.

Experiencing side effects from drinking too much rooibos tea is unlikely. Even when made with poor quality leaves, how much tannin content this plant has is next to nothing. That means even people are sensitive to green can probably drink this without getting an upset stomach, headache or vomiting. Some who experience acid reflux with other teas say they don’t get it with this one.

By simply using two bags instead of one, you will have antioxidant content equal to green tea. All without the gastrointestinal side effects.

And unlike green, you can drink many cups of this stuff. One person at Superfoodly can’t drink green teas because they make him sick to his stomach. He’s never experienced that adverse reaction with red tea, even when he brews it strong using 3 bags and drinks multiple servings.

The types of antioxidants in it are also quite different.

With green tea, most of the antioxidant activity comes from epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) and to a lesser degree, epigallocatechin (EGC) (9).

With rooibos, you get these polyphenolic compounds (10):

  • Aspalathin
  • Nothofagin
  • Apigenin
  • Luteolin
  • C-linked glycosides of the flavones
  • Eriodictyol-C-glycoside isomers

The first two – aspalathin and nothofagin – appear to be exclusive to this plant.

Also, note that ORAC values are only in vitro (laboratory measured) antioxidant activity of a substance. That can’t determine if a substance might boost a body’s ability to naturally produce more antioxidants. More on that in a minute.

How much antioxidants honeybush tea has is comparable, at least in terms of total measured activity. Though its profile is different, as honeybush doesn’t have aspalathin or nothofagin (11).

Nutrition Facts

brewed red teaJust a quick Google will reveal a plethora of blogs who have sensationalized headlines like “9 proven” or “13 amazing” benefits for this beverage. When you read them, you get vague statements like it being rich in calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc, and other minerals. Of course, they never provide any numerical amounts or data sources to back up that claim.

Sorry, it’s just not true.

Whether it’s red bush tea or another kind like green, black, or oolong, none of these beverages provide “high” or “rich” amounts of minerals. Yes, they will contain trace amounts of those in their leaves, but nothing noteworthy that will put a dent in your recommended dietary allowance (RDA).

It’s also worth mentioning there aren’t even nutrition facts for rooibos tea in the Standard Reference of the USDA National Nutrient Database.

Under the Branded Food Products entries, which are submitted by third party manufacturers, there are a number of entries. But not a single product which is 100% rooibos red tea lists any mineral content whatsoever (12) (13) (14) (15). Ditto for rooibos red chai (16) (17) (18).

This shouldn’t surprise you though. Regular green tea is included in the USDA Standard Reference data and here is the mineral content listed for that, per 100 grams (19):

  • 02 mg of iron = 0.1% of DV
  • 1 mg of magnesium = 25% of DV
  • 8 mg of potassium = 2% of DV
  • 01 mg of zinc = 0.1% of DV

It’s not like eating a big salad… teas are a small amount of ground up leaves which are only soaked in water, not fully ingested. None are good for you when it comes to essential minerals.

On a related note, it’s worth noting that black and green teas (Camellia sinensis) have been found to adversely affect the absorption of iron in humans. A study from way back in 1979 (which is actually written in Afrikaans) found that “rooibos tea did not affect iron absorption significantly” like the other tea did (20).

How much vitamin is C is in rooibos?

None. There could be some in your brewed cup, but it’s too negligible of an amount to matter.

The plant does contain natural ascorbic acid, but just like Camellia sinensis teas, after harvesting it degrades. Vitamin C breaks down rapidly when exposed to heat and air. Even minimally processed green tea only has 0.7 mg of vitamin C per cup (19).

The nutrition facts for red bush tea are a bunch of zeros. No sugar and no calories.

Does honeybush have sugar or caffeine? Nope. How about tannins? It’s very little, just like red bush.

Health benefits

As we stated above, very few clinical studies exist and therefore, none of the following benefits are proven. Some of the below theories are based on lab experiments only.

That said, some fascinating pieces of research have been published about it.

Cholesterol and glutathione levels

In this double-blind study, 40 overweight people were tasked with drinking 6 cups per day of regular (fermented) rooibos for a total of 6 weeks (21). Findings included:

  • Glutathione levels increased after consumption. That’s a natural antioxidant your body produces.
  • “Significant decreases in plasma markers of lipid peroxidation” which is a fancy term for oxidized fats in the blood.
  • Triglycerides and LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) decreased, while HDL (the good kind) “significantly increased.”

Based on the results, the researchers’ conclusion was that it:

“…significantly improved the lipid profile as well as redox status, both relevant to heart disease, in adults at risk for developing cardiovascular disease.”

However another study used young adults (33 years old on average) who were not overweight. In that study of low risk people they found (10):

“No statistical changes were observed in plasma triacylglycerolsand cholesterol levels after consumption of the teas”

The fact that they were healthy to begin with may be why those levels didn’t change.

However there was something that did change; “plasma antioxidant capacity increased significantly” with both the fermented and unfermented versions. That led them to say:

“The data show that rooibos teas represent a source of dietary antioxidants in humans.”

Note that the word glutathione is found nowhere in the second study. They were focusing on the aspalathin and nothofagin antioxidants in the tea, they weren’t checking if red tea might also boost the body’s natural antioxidant production,  such as for glutathione. Since they were only measuring overall plasma activity, it’s unknown what was responsible for the increase.

Lastly is a chart from a study done on rats, which measured the amount of glutathione in their blood serum and brain extract (22):

anti-stress effects of rooibos extract on rats

They used their brain extract to take the measurements, something which obviously can’t be done in a human study.

For the rats at least, the antioxidants clearly increased in the brain, helping to offset the oxidative stress that was induced. This may suggest that the compounds from the rooibos did cross their blood-brain barrier.

The “youth enzyme” AMPK

what AMPK enzyme looks like

What the AMPK enzyme looks like. Image credit: Nevit Dilmen

Some bloggers claim there are benefits of drinking rooibos tea for skin. They allege it’s anti-inflammatory, helps reduce wrinkles, and it’s good to drink everyday for those reasons. Some even recommend to make a rooibos tea face mask.

Actually, there are zero studies on skin care, so those claims are not scientifically supported.

However the topic of AMPK might be related. Found throughout every cell in the body, some call it “the youth enzyme” and for good reason.

It serves as a signaling pathway for metabolism and autophagy, which is the process of getting rid of old cells and converting them to energy. As we age, the amount of AMPK enzyme activation throughout our body decreases.

Resveratrol and nicotinamide riboside are a couple compounds which are believed to work through the AMPK, PGC-1a, and SIRT1 signalling pathways (23) (24).

Using skeletal muscle cells cultured in a lab, scientists treated them with extracts of this tea and observed (25):

“…the extracts increased activation of key regulatory proteins (AKT and AMPK) involved in insulin-dependent and non-insulin regulated signalling pathways…”

Now there are other foods which have better evidence suggesting they are an AMPK activator, but this preliminary research suggesting that rooibos might offer antiaging benefits remains intriguing.

Weight loss

As with the skin care, this benefit is massively hyped with few facts. For example, an article on Jillian Michaels website says: “Red tea contains some of the same fat-fighting, disease-prevention antioxidants that helped green tea soar in worldwide popularity.”

For starters, antioxidants fight oxidation, not fat. We already went over how their antioxidant profiles are quite different!

As far as green tea, there is some human research which found it boosted metabolism by about 4% over a 24 hour period. Though no similar studies have been done with green or red rooibos. Claims that it can help you shed pounds and drop dress sizes are bogus.

There are studies using type 2 diabetic animals which might suggest an “antidiabetic effect” (26). That was based on increased glucose uptake and AMPK, among other positive changes. The chart below shows the measurements seen in cultured cells which were tested.

chart of blood sugar decrease with roobios extract

The effect of green rooibos extract on glucose uptake in cultured L6 myotubes. The higher the dosage, the greater the uptake.

In a study involving the related honeybush (Cyclopia maculata), it too was found to be beneficial for diabetic rats (27). Though it’s not clear if the mechanism is believed to be the same.

Using cultured human cell models of diabetes and cancer, ROS-induced oxidative stress was helped with red bush, but keep in mind that’s only a lab study (28).

As of today, there is only one proven way how rooibos will help with weight loss… it’s a zero calorie drink!

Calorie-free may not be a groundbreaking perk, but at least you can bank on it

Every day, try substituting your calorie-rich coffees (those with added milk/sugar) and other sweet beverages with a cup or two of this tea.

It’s an easy way to reduce calories, while still satisfying your sweet tooth. If you need it even sweeter, try adding zero calorie monk fruit.

Side effects

1. Does it contain estrogen?

Without providing details, some folks are claiming that rooibos tea causes estrogen dominance.

Or what they’re trying to say is that it contains phytoestrogens (plant estrogen which is molecularly similar to human estrogen).

differences and similarities between estrogen and phytoestrogen

As with soy, they worry it cause males to grow breasts. So is this tea bad for you if you’re a man? Or a woman?

For starters, these compounds are quite common. If you look at the worst estrogen foods, you will see that flaxseeds have almost 300% more than soybeans. You average doughnut has the same amount of phytoestrogen as soy milk (2,903.8 and 2,957.2 µg per 100g, respectively).

But no one talks about those other sources, or the estrogenic activity of cow milk and dairy products which is potentially worse. Everyone just seems to fixate on soy.

Out of the 25 known compounds isolated from the rooibios leaves, only 3 demonstrated estrogenic activity in the lab (29). Each had less potency than genistein, which is the dominant phytoestrogen in soy.

Any estrogenic activity of rooibos is probably too little to have an effect in humans.

Consider this… an average cup of tea uses 2 grams of loose leaves. When you eat a serving of tofu – like Sofritos in an unhealthy Chipotle burrito – the weight of that soy product is over 50x higher!

Another consideration is a study involving male rats whose diet was 2% or 5% rooibos tea for 52 days (30). No changes were detected in testosterone levels, but there was this observation:

“…rooibos improved sperm concentration, viability and motility…”

The scientists theorized that benefit was due to the antioxidants, but they couldn’t say for sure.

Sperm motility also improved in another study using diabetic rats (31)

2. Is it toxic to your liver?

The only other potential side effect of rooibos tea which we have come across are the accusations it might be toxic to the liver.

There are only two case studies; one involved a 42 year old woman and the other was a 52 year old man (32) (33).

The arguments laid out were both weak, especially considering that other herbs were being used. To us, it sounds as if they’re mixing up correlation (the drinking of the tea) with causation. There is no other evidence suggesting liver damage, but anything is possible and each person’s body is unique.

In at least one animal study, the opposite was suggested.

Rats with injured livers were fed the tea. At the conclusion of the study, about using a supplement of unfermented rooibos, they said it (34):

“…may benefit human health by providing the liver with an enhanced antioxidant capacity to reduce damage induced by toxicants.”

3. Is it safe to drink rooibos tea during pregnancy?

adorable African-American babyYou will see many blogs online recommending it precisely for that purpose, since it’s caffeine free.

Reducing or eliminating caffeine while pregnant is probably a good idea. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends limiting caffeine to 200 mg or less per day, which is barely one cup of coffee. A 2016 study linked caffeine to miscarriages (35).

As to whether or not rooibos is the best caffeine free beverage to substitute with, that’s unknown. Just like with many herbal products and foods, it hasn’t been specifically studied on women in that scenario. Pregnancy and breastfeeding risks are unknown.

The Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding all herbal teas, unless your doctor says it is okay (36).

4. Can you be allergic?

In theory, yes, though no case studies exist on PubMed about patients being allergic to rooibos tea.

Some researchers have even proposed that it might help with allergic reactions, but at least one study has contradicted that (37).

5. Does rooibos tea have flouride?

Since it is a naturally occurring mineral, all plants will have at least trace amounts, because it’s in the soil.

How much fluoride there is in red bush and honeybush is very little (38). They do not have the same problem that Camellia sinensis does. With that plant, its roots are like a magnet for the mineral, which is why fluoride content is such a problem with black and green teas.

There is 1 to 3 mg/L in black tea, while rooibos has 0.1 mg/L. That means black tea has 10-30x more fluoride content.

Rooibos tea reviews

Which brand of rooibos tea is best? We went straight to the source to find out, South Africa, to find out.

Everywhere we visited, we would inquire on this topic. No native we talked to disliked it. Everyone liked or loved it.

Considering that, you’d think they would be connoisseurs of the stuff.

Nope.

Yes, some of these folks we talked to definitely were foodies, but when it came to quality tea brands, they didn’t seem very picky.

The de facto brand there was Twinings rooibos tea…

Twinings rooibos tea

At some places it was the brand Five Roses, which is a South African tea company that is of similar caliber as Twinings. Neither are bad, but their flavor is mild. It tasted more like honeybush, even when brewed with two bags.

Singita Boulders Lodge in the Sabi Sands costs a ridiculous 45,500 rand per night ($3,500). For each meal, the menu is created just for you…

Singita food menu for breakfast

Your private chefs, Christian and Dylan, will create vegan eight course meals to your specifications, which are better than what you will have anywhere else in the world. Yolandi, the pastry chef, puts every gluten free bakery in LA to shame.

But when you head back to your room, you will be in for a disappointment. Here is the brand of tea you will find…

TWG rooibos brand

TWG, which stands for The Wellbeing Group, is indeed a high quality brand out of Singapore. Their logo says “the finest teas of the world” and while their rooibos was tastier than Twinings or Five Roses, it wasn’t nearly as good as what could be had back at home.

And that is Rooibos Rocks, which is the best tasting brand on the market. Plus it’s organic (and yes, that’s means non GMO too).

Where to buy it? We haven’t seen it for sale at any stores, but you can get it on Amazon. Though take our praise with a grain of salt and instead, read the 1,000+ product reviews for it on there.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.