News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Monday July 22nd 2019

Scientists increasingly probe the health benefits of rooibos

Chris du Plessis, tour guide at the Elandsberg rooibos estate, examines a prize specimen. Rooibos thrives in the hot dry summers of the Cedarberg, which is the only area in the world where it is farmed. Photo: Steve Kretzmann/WCN


The health benefits of rooibos have long been part of South African folklore, even as the indigenous brew was scorned by the upper classes throughout much of the 20th Century as being a ‘poor man’s tea’.

But increased research into the properties of rooibos – which is part of the fynbos family and endemic to the Cedarberg region of the Western Cape – over the past ten years has found evidence that it is rich in anti-oxidants which assist in preventing various forms of cancer, heart attack, and reducing cholesterol levels.

The number of scientific papers published investigating the health benefits of the hardy indigenous bush have increased from an average of about 20 per year in 1994, to over 300 per year currently, and the rate of scientific investigation is set to be further boosted this year by a R2 million injection by the SA Rooibos Council (SARC) to independent researchers at a number of South African universities and science councils.

Grant holders include the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan University which is looking into the anti-ageing properties of rooibos; the Medical Research Council researching the plant’s anti-obesity properties; the Cape Peninsula University of Technology looking into whether it improves optimal performance during exercise and assists in post exercise recovery; Stellenbosch University looking at its ability to combat the effects of stress; and the Agricultural Research Council focussing on the quality and flavour profile of rooibos tea.

SARC product research committee chair Mientjie Mouton said the money was well spent as the new knowledge generated by such research was “of huge value to the industry”.

She said it was important to obtain scientific evidence to prove of disprove anecdotal evidence on the health benefits of rooibos.

“Promising and exciting” results about rooibos in relation to heart health and diabetes was emerging from studies in Sweden, Italy,Spain and Germany, she said, and the SARC was contributing locally “to major advances in our understanding of the health-promoting properties of rooibos.”

Professor Jeanine Marnewick at CPUT said published research from experiment conducted on laboratory rats had shown that rooibos inhibited the development of oesophageal cancer, and a topical rooibos ointment showed a 75% – 91% reduction in skin tumours created by UltraViolet light.

There was also a significant reduction of pre-cancerous lesions in rats which were given rooibos to drink and results revealed anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory properties.

Tests on humans showed significant increases in anti-oxidant levels in the blood of people who drank rooibos and that drinking 400ml of rooibos (two cups) per day “significantly inhibited augiotensin-converting enzyme activity implicated in the development of cardiovascular disease”. In other words, said Marnewick, rooibos can help prevent heart attack.

Research had also revealed the tea to reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol while increasing levels of “good cholesterol”.

Given the proven health benefits, South Africans were fortunate in that rooibos, although increasingly in demand globally, was still sold at a similar price to black tea locally despite the fact that only 12 000 tons of rooibos was produced annually while two million tons of black tea was produced, said SARC director for cultivation research Willem Engelbrecht.

Additionally, rooibos was sold in its pure form locally while in Europe it was blended with flavourants such as vanilla or herbal infusions such as chamomile. – Steve Ktretzmann

Tags: Agricultural Research Council, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cedarberg, Chris du Plessis, Elandsberg rooibos estate, Jeanine Marnewick, Medical Research Council, Mientjie Mouton, Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan University, Rooibos, SA Rooibos Council (SARC), Stellenbosch University, Willem Engelbrecht

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