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Rooibos tea is a balm, inside the body and out


Rooibos is rather amazing. The plants grow only in a very small region of the Western Cape, around Clanwilliam, in roughly a 100 km radius. How this tiny semi-arid part of the world – with extreme temperatures from 50°Celsius in summer and below freezing in winter – can sustain the entire industry is a miracle in itself.

“Part of the fynbos family, rooibos is unique and grows nowhere else in the world,” says Adele du Toit, spokesperson for the SA Rooibos Council (SARC). Given this, careful attention must be paid to farming practices so international standards applicable to the rooibos industry include EU organic certification, sustainability certification, and social certification, including but not limited to The Rainforest Alliance and UTZThe Sustainable Agriculture Network and Fairtrade International

A fancy new feather in the cap is the June 2021 registration by the European Commission of the designation “Rooibos/Red Bush” in its register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications where it joins Champagne, Irish Whiskey, Porto, Queso Manchego and other products.

What this means is consumers will be able to know what they are buying is the real deal: “The registration means Rooibos or Red Bush can only be used to refer to the dried leaves of 100% pure Rooibos/Red Bush derived from Aspalathus linearis that has been cultivated or wild-harvested in designated local municipalities of the Western and Northern Cape. Rooibos/Red Bush may be blended with teas, infusions or other products, whether or not for human consumption,” are the official words.


Rooibos grows only within a 100km radius of Clanwilliam in the Western Cape. (Photo: Supplied)

Rooibos is the first African food to receive the status of a protected designation of origin in the EU register, and the registration will go a long way towards sustaining the rooibos industry, said Du Toit. “Higher consumption of rooibos due to increased recognition will contribute to the preservation of traditional knowledge and further uplift small-scale farmers in the indigenous communities producing rooibos.”

Although we drink it in similar ways – brewed in a cup with perhaps the addition of milk, sugar, lemon or honey – rooibos is a fermented herbal tea; black and green tea is tea made from the Camellia Sinensis plant, but is produced using different methods. 

“Herbal teas are made from any other plant, and can include leaves, roots, fruits and even flowers. Rooibos is considered to be a herbal tea. Rooibos is mostly known in its fermented form, which gives the tea its rich amber colour. When the plant is harvested (green leaves) and processed, it is mixed with water and left to ferment in the hot African sun,” said Du Toit. “The fermentation process changes the colour to the deep red we know and love. Green rooibos is different – the fermentation process is omitted, so the tea is dried immediately after harvest, and the tea has a much lighter colour when brewed.”


After it’s picked, rooibos is left in the sun to ferment, which gives the tea its rich amber colour. (Photo: Supplied)

Tea consultant and specialist Jessica Bonin, who began her business in a caravan in De Waal Park, Cape Town, later moving to premises in Woodstock, then Long Street, expanded. “Tea historically refers specifically to the Camellia family of plants native to East and South East Asia. How Camellia is grown and processed determines whether it is a black or green tea based on differing levels of oxygen present in the leaves.

“Plants we drink in the same way as tea – leaves steeped in hot water – that are not from the Camellia family are classified as herbal. Mint, for example, are leaves from the Mentha plant and not the Camellia plant, therefore mint is herbal. English Breakfast or Ceylon is from the Camellia plant and fully oxidised, making it a black tea.”

In my previous encounters with Bonin (who introduced me to the pleasures of matcha, and tranquil tea ceremonies), she advocated the use of loose tea over bags, and I have to admit it’s a lovely gentle – and genteel – ritual of brewing a warm beverage. But I’m also lazy, and do that horrific thing of pouring the water over a bag, dunking it a few times, and drinking. With rooibos though, I’m a bit more restrained; I don’t let the kettle boil until it switches off, and I let the mug stand with the bag until it’s strong, and cool enough to drink. Oftentimes I forget about it entirely, which is mildly annoying. “Oh my tea, gosh darnit!” is something I yell quite a bit, or words to that effect.


Loose leaves or bags? In the case of rooibos, bags are good. (Photo: Supplied)

“Loose leaf over tea bags is the preference for the Camellia tea leaf and is not necessarily applicable to herbal varieties,” said Bonin. “‘Loose leaf’ really refers to ‘full leaf’. In order to fit all the leaves into a tea bag, they have to be cut into what we call ‘fannings’. 

“The Camellia leaf contains over 2,000 different ‘chemicals’ that express themselves in flavour and smell. When the tea leaf is broken, it is prevented from imparting its full flavour potential. Rooibos, however, has leaves that resemble pine needles and small stalks are often included in the cut used for drinking. As a result, rooibos handles well in a bag despite smaller leaf sizes being used.”

Which makes me feel far less guilty, thank you Jessica. My other concern was that nowadays I don’t get that big, deep, earthy hit in my first sip, the one that makes rooibos so different from other teas. I wanted to know why.

“It depends entirely on the brand,” said Bonin. “A good quality rooibos should be woody, sweet, rich and creamy with a steep of three to five minutes. Aim for a tea bag that has at least 2 to 2.5g and test the various brands to find one that has your preferred flavour profile and strength.”

On it. 


Studies have shown rooibos can reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol. (Photo: Supplied)

But not all rooibos is created equal. There are blends and infusions and added flavours; I like using them to make sweet cold tea which I keep in the fridge to dilute with soda water for a refreshing summer beverage, with lots of ice and garnish in a goblet.

“I love rooibos blends!,” said Bonin. “The best blends for my personal preference are ones that use natural ingredients. Rooibos is so incredibly versatile, and its flavour profiles acts as the perfect foundation to add an almost infinite array of blends from florals to herbals and even spices. 

“The infusion that works best at different times depends on the ingredients used. Mint is excellent for digestion, therefore a rooibos and mint after meals is a good time. Chamomile is great to reduce stress and induce sleep; having rooibos and chamomile at night will ensure a good night’s sleep. Masala spices are very soothing and wonderful when mixed with rooibos as a base. I love rooibos chai in the afternoons around teatime mixed with milk and honey. Rosehip is full of antioxidants, adding a power punch to the ones rooibos already has. I would drink this in the mid-morning as it’s refreshing and energising. Morning is a great time to drink rooibos with lemon and ginger to get the digestion started and the mind clear for the day ahead.”

Rooibos has been familiar to us as a drink for generations, but there’s much more to it, and many ways to reap its benefits. “The industry is doing well, and we are seeing many different product innovations coming to the forefront other than traditional tea. Rooibos is increasingly being used in foods, alcoholic beverages like liqueurs and gin, beauty products and health supplements,” said Du Toit.

“Global awareness of the tea is also on the increase. This is because people love the story about rooibos – its uniqueness and exclusive area it grows in – and it comes from Africa, deemed to be exotic and fascinating in other parts of the world. The biggest export markets are Japan, Germany and the Netherlands that collectively make up about two thirds of total exports. On average about 14,000 tonnes are produced yearly; half of all rooibos is consumed locally, while the rest is exported.”

In 2018, rooibos made a brief appearance in an issue of Marvel Comics’ She-Hulk when psychiatrist Flo Mayer offered Jennifer Walters (also known as She-Hulk) a cup of tea to calm her down. Rooibos was among the options. Research done by several academic institutions, including Stellenbosch University, have shown Rooibos tea’s ability to alleviate stress and anxiety levels. 

Among the many other health benefits are antioxidants to improve the skin, and it has been proven to decrease the body’s production of cortisol – the nasty stress hormones which can increase one’s appetite for comfort food which can lead to weight-gain. I drink several cups of rooibos daily, in its purest form without milk, sugar or any other additions, so by rights I should be calm, skinny and have far fewer wrinkles. Then again, what might I look like if I don’t drink the tea? 

What I can vouch for is how a rooibos bath or rinse can soothe inflamed itchy skin (like eczema or other skin conditions). When I got chickenpox in my adult years (utterly gross), my ex mother-in-law told me to pour cool rooibos tea over myself to help the itchiness and also to dry up the pustules (even grosser). It works, and I pass this bit of old fashioned home remedy on whenever I can.


Rooibos tea, prepared, and leaves. (Photo: Supplied)

Besides these outward benefits, rooibos is good for our insides too. Professor Jeanine Marnewick (PhD, MRSSAf, Research Chair: Biotechnology, Director: Applied Microbial and Health Biotechnology Institute, Cape Peninsula University of Technology) has reams of facts at her fingertips, and you can read more on the SARC website.

“Rooibos contains no caffeine, and has very low levels of tannins when compared to the traditional Ceylon teas, and a plethora of unique and other antioxidant compounds,” said Marnewick. “Already these characteristics make rooibos attractive to those who may be caffeine-sensitive or struggle with their blood iron levels (tannins are known to bind dietary iron when consumed with food, and rooibos contains very few tannins).

“The focus of our research and that of others across the world the past decade has been on rooibos and heart health. Heart disease is a very complex disease with a number of contributing factors involved, but we know from past studies that there exists a link between an increased consumption of phytochemicals (compounds derived from plants) and the prevention of certain lifestyle diseases (such as atherosclerosis, heart disease, type 2 diabetes).  

“A study by researchers from Sweden reported rooibos to suppress the enzyme involved in the development of high blood pressure. This they measured 30-60 minutes after healthy volunteers consumed 400 millilitres of rooibos. Then in our own study we showed rooibos to improve the cholesterol profile of participants who all had two or more risk factors for developing heart disease. Consuming six cups of rooibos throughout the day for a period of six weeks resulted in a significant reduction in the level of LDL (‘bad cholesterol’), triglycerides and a significantly improved level of HDL (‘good cholesterol’).

“Through these and other studies I think it is clear that we should make rooibos part of our daily health regime to assist our bodies.”

Du Toit confessed she is a bit obsessed (which is why she has the job): “I just love knowing that I am using a product that is made locally and supports our local economy. I also use rooibos in supplement form and drink probably around 8 to 10 cups a day. I have recently become sensitive to caffeine, and rooibos is a fantastic alternative to coffee and normal tea as it is caffeine-free.”


Source from: Bianca Coleman(2021). Rooibos tea is a balm, inside the body and out. Retrieve from: Daily Maverick(June 18, 2021). https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-06-18-rooibos-tea-is-a-balm-inside-the-body-and-out/