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All about rooibos

Rooibos (roy-bos) herbal tea is the product of the aspalathus linearis plant. Native to the Cederberg region in South Africa, this broom-like plant has been used for its medicinal qualities for several centuries. It is naturally caffeine-free, rich in vitamin C and contains several minerals and compounds that are beneficial to our health. The ascension of this popular beverage on the global market began in the mid-twentieth century. However, since then, rooibos tells a tale of how a century-old product is perceived as new in today's health market.

The Plant

The Rooibos plant (aspalathus linearis) grows in the sandy soils of Cederberg and the surrounding mountainous region of South Africa. It is a full and short bush that typically grows to four feet in height. The tea is the product of the short green needle-like leaves that grow from the branches in clusters. Small yellow flowers grow from the ends of the branches, and the fruit is a pod, distinctively lance-shaped, that produces a couple of small, hard seeds. In the past, the seeds proved to be difficult to collect as they are released from the pod as soon as it opens. Subsequent measures have been taken to ensure the collection of the seeds is more efficient and allows for more cultivation of the plants.

The Tea

The green rooibos leaves are harvested in the hot summer months of December through May. There are two varieties of rooibos herbal tea common to the market: green and red. Green rooibos is harvested and left to dry without processing. When brewed, the drinkable tea is light green in colour and has a slight malty taste to it.

Red rooibos involves more (natural) processing, which changes the colour and taste of the tea. The leaves are picked and gathered in the same manner as green rooibos, but they are cut into smaller pieces and left to ferment. Much like an exposed apple, the rooibos leaves turn a bright auburn colour once they have oxidized, or fermented. After the red rooibos tea has been brewed, it produces a clear, earthy-coloured beverage withs a clean, nutty taste.

The Benefits

Rooibos is naturally non-caffeinated and is rich in vitamin C. It has a strong mineral profile, containing iron, potassium, copper, fluoride, zinc and magnesium and has a very healthy dose of antioxidants and alpha-hydroxy acid.

The research literature available on the health benefits of Rooibos is deep, although the majority of the studies have been conducted on animals. The need for health studies on humans is widely acknowledged.

One of the main health features of this tea is that it is suitable for pregnant women as well as children. It is known for calming colicky babies.

The presence of antioxidants in rooibos makes it a healthy tea for general cell health. It has great benefits for oral health, too, as it provides the teeth and mouth with nutrients immediately upon consumption. Studies show it can even help with vascular diseases and weight control.

While rooibos requires more academic and scientific research, evidence suggests it is a largely health-promoting beverage.

The History

Rooibos is an Afrikaans word meaning "red bush." This is a recent name for the herbal tea, resulting from the Dutch colonization of this part of the African continent. Information prior to this largely unknown.

The documented use of rooibos in the Cape Horn regions of South Africa is limited, making the history of this popular beverage difficult to establish. The cultures of the Khoi and San peoples, who traditionally consumed this beverage, were oral in nature. They passed their history along through stories and song, thus making the investigation of the origins of rooibos challenging.

Mention of the beverage was first made by the 18th century Swedish explorer Carl van Thurnberg. However, it was during World War II that Rooibos established a global presence. During the war there was no import or export of any commodities with Asia, thus making ceylon and all other black teas virtually inaccessible. In the absence of black teas, rooibos was offered as an alternative and, in some markets, it established a strong foothold.

It is more recent that the health benefits have made rooibos a viable and popular option for many seeking a healthy alternative to today's sugar-laden beverages.

One of the drawbacks of this rapidly growing market is the young foundation that the rooibos tea growers have to produce for such an increased demand. The threat of global warming and inconsistent weather patterns may also prove to have a significant effect on the crops of rooibos than we can predict.

Conclusion

The presence of rooibos in the world tea market is relatively new compared to that if it's tea counterparts, but while it may be new, it has a great deal to offer its drinkers. As a commodity that came into popularity during a time of need for tea, it has proved its staying power. With all of its health benefits, it will likely stick around for wider consumption. But, as with all teas, make sure that when you're drinking your rooibos, you are drinking the best possible tea to maximize its health benefits and avoid the leaching of pesticides and chemicals into your cup.

References

Joubert, Elizabeth and Dalene de Beer. "Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) Beyond the Farm Gate: From Herbal Tea to Potential Phytopharmaceutical." South African Journal of Botany 77 (2011): 869-886.

"Phenolic Content and Antioxidant Activity of Rooibos Food Ingredient Extracts." Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 27 (2012): 45-51.

Mazibuko, S.E., C.J.F. Muller, E. Joubert, D. de Beer, R. Johnson, A.R. Opoku and J. Louw. "Amelioration of Palmitate-Induced Insulin Resistance in C2C12 Muscle Cells by Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis)." Phytomedicine 20 (2013): 813-819.

Raynolds, Laura T. and Siphelo Unathi Ngcwangu. "Fair Trade Rooibos Tea: Connecting South African Producers and American Consumer Markets." Geoforum 41, 1 (January 2010): 74-83.

Sanderson, Micheline, Sithandiwe E. Mazibuko, Elizabeth Joubert, Dalene de Beer, Rabia Johnson, Carmen Pheiffer, Johan Louw and Christo J.F. Muller. "Effects of Fermented Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) on apidocyte differentiation." Phytomedicine 21 (2104): 109-117.

Troskie, Dirk and Estelle Biénabe. "Institutional Building and Local Industry Dynamics: Lessons from the Rooibos GI Initiative." In Developing Geographical Indications in the South – The South African Experience. Eds., Cerkia Bramley, Estelle Biénabe and Johann Kirsten. (New York: Springer Press, 2013): 95-122.