Move over green tea, make room for bush

Move over green tea, make room for bush


Move over green tea, make room for bush

It contains no caffeine, is chock-full of antioxidants and flavonoids and tastes exactly like tea. Rooibos or bush tea could just be the next best beverage on your table.

Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling series, on a ladies’ detective agency in Botswana, will instantly recognise the term bush tea: many chapters in the books unfold around cups of bush tea that Mma Ramotswe shares with her clients and friends. I had always wondered what this exotic-sounding brew was. Having finally managed to procure some recently, I can now fully appreciate the traditionally-built detective’s partiality to this southern African tisane.

Bush tea is better known outside Africa as rooibos (pronounced roy-boss), which in Afrikaans means red bush, perhaps because of the deep red colour of the brew. The tea is made from the stem and needle-like leaf of the plant Aspalathus linearis, which belongs to the same family as beans and peas. The plant is found only in South Africa, where it grows in the Cederberg Mountains near the town of Clanwilliam, about 200 kilometres north of Cape Town.

Bush tea was introduced to the outside world in fits and starts. The tea was used by two indigenous tribes in the region, the Khoikhoi and the San. We know this because a botanist recorded this fact in 1772. It was more than a 100 years later that rooibos began to be commercially grown and marketed in South Africa. And it took the wartime shortage of Ceylon tea in the 1930s and 1940s to boost demand for rooibos in South Africa.

But the real impetus came in 1968, thanks to a young South African mother named Annique Theron (no, she is not related to Charlize Theron). Struggling with a colicky, allergic, sleepless baby, Theron decided to try feeding her some of the rooibos tea that she had been drinking. It worked like magic, calming the baby.

Theron spent the next few years experimenting with rooibos and then came out with a book titled Allergies: An Amazing Discovery. In it, she waxed eloquently about rooibos’ anti-colic and anti-insomnia properties. The world sat up and took notice. Today, the demand for rooibos in the international market far exceeds demand within South Africa. So was Annique Theron on to something? The short answer is, yes. 

Annique Theron published her book in 1974, but scientific research on rooibos and its potential health benefits only began in the late 1980s. Research on this red-coloured tea ranges from measurements of the antioxidants in the tisane and experiments with mouse cells, to studies with mice or humans.

These experiments showed rooibos to be chock-full of flavonoids, phenolic compounds and other antioxidants. Such antioxidants can bind with, and so in effect mop up, free radicals — unstable compounds that, in our bodies, are thought to cause all manner of ills including cancer and heart disease.

One experiment, for example, incubated cancerous mouse cells in rooibos and found that after six weeks, the rate of growth of the cancer had dropped by half. Another recent study had 40 healthy volunteers drink six cups of rooibos tea a day for six weeks — the amount an average South African consumes. At the end of the study period, researchers found that the volunteers had significantly lower levels of LDL-cholesterol or the so-called bad cholesterol, and higher levels of HDL-cholesterol, or good cholesterol.

Several studies have compared rooibos to the other popular health beverage, green tea. In terms of levels of antioxidants, green tea is clearly higher. But what makes rooibos attractive is that it is caffeine-free, making it a healthy choice for pregnant women and others who want to avoid caffeine. It is also very low on tannins which means that unlike regular tea and green tea, it does not interfere with iron absorption in the body.

Rooibos has also found its way into cosmetic applications, backed by research which suggests it may reduce signs of ageing and sun damage. Annique Theron herself founded a very successful cosmetics company which sells rooibos-based anti-wrinkle creams.
Strangely enough, the red tea’s anti-allergenic potential, which is what Theron first chanced upon, remains scientifically unsubstantiated since the few tests so far have given inconclusive results. 

Two types of red bush tea

Although traditionally drunk as a red tea, rooibos now comes in two varieties, the traditional red variety, which is made by fermenting the leaves for about 12-14 hours, and a newer, unfermented, green variety. Antioxidant levels in the green variety are higher but paradoxically, some tests of their free-radical binding reactions have shown greater activity in the traditional red tea than in the unfermented green variety.

Typically, rooibos is steeped in boiling water for about five minutes and then enjoyed with a little bit of milk, and if you like, with some sugar. You can also have it plain and unadorned if you want to savour its naturally sweet and slightly fruity notes.  Unlike regular teas, brewing it for longer will not introduce bitterness, so let your taste buds be your guide.

Rooibos is not easy to find in India. Look for it in specialty tea shops and in select gourmet food stores.  

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