Rooibos Tea Health Benefits: Antioxidants Plus Anti-Diabetic

September 7, 2013
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Rooibos Tea Health benefits - antioxidants and anti-diabeticWhat is Rooibos Tea?

Rooibos is the marketing friendly term for the tea that is made from the genus of plants known as Aspalathus, although almost always the particular species Aspalathus linearis is used.

Rooibos Tea Health benefits - antioxidants and anti-diabeticWhat is Rooibos Tea?

Rooibos is the marketing friendly term for the tea that is made from the genus of plants known as Aspalathus, although almost always the particular species Aspalathus linearis is used. The leaves and stems from this plant are taken and either immediately brewed as tea (which is called ‘green’ Rooibos) or they are fermented which brings out a red coloration and enhances the taste.  The fermented form is the one that is most common.

The tea itself is described mostly as being a mildly sweet tea that has no caffeine content and is not very bitter. It has a more pleasant taste than do other common teas like green or black tea, and due to reports of it being a potent antioxidant and its pleasant taste, Rooibos has grown to become a hot natural product worldwide. Always popular in Africa, it started to be sold at higher frequencies in Europe and is now making its way across the Atlantic.

Is Rooibos Tea Healthy?

In a very general sense, Rooibos tea is healthy. The Rooibos tea contains a wide variety of compounds that exert general antioxidant properties and when looking at the preliminary evidence in rodents and humans it appears to exert general ‘healthy’ effects; a mild reduction in cholesterol, perhaps a small anti-diabetic effect, some minor anti-inflammatory effects, etc.

Nothing appears to stand out to a level where it can be called very potent, but with a ‘small boost’ in the right direction on nearly every parameter measured it can definitely be called a healthy tea to drink.

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What other benefits might it have?

There are a few benefits of Rooibos that are not tied into the antioxidant effects differentiating it from green tea, and these are mostly related to diabetes protection.

Firstly, aspalathin appears to be quite effective at preventing glucose uptake from the intestines. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter that aspalathin is poorly absorbed since it doesn’t need to be absorbed to prevent glucose uptake. This is a mechanism similar to green coffee extract, which inhibits starch uptake, and is a potential use for aspalathin.

Secondly, aspalathin appears to potently increase muscular and liver glucose uptake. It does this by two distinct mechanisms, one of which increases glucose uptake, the other of which makes the cell more sensitive to insulin. While daily consumption of Rooibos is unlikely to exert such benefits due to the poor absorption of aspalathin, if absorption is somehow enhanced then Rooibos might be an interesting anti-diabetic tea.

Green Rooibos or Fermented Rooibos?

A rarity among rarities, Rooibos tea in the fermented form is actually less beneficial than the unfermented form. Most food products tend to get some novel bioactives when you ferment them or the bacteria itself is beneficial, but in the case of Rooibos the aspalathin content plummets with fermentation.

For health purposes, green Rooibos would be prefered. For taste purposes, the fermented tea would be a more prudent decision since the fermentation process is designed around enhancing the taste and color of the tea.

Should Rooibos be a replacement for the green or black tea I drink?

At this point in time, there is not enough evidence to prove that Rooibos is a better option than other teas out there, particularly green tea. That being said, there is evidence to suggest that it is better than nothing so in the end it can be a valuable addition to an otherwise normal diet but wouldn’t necessarily be suited as a replacement to green tea.

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The reasoning for the above can be summed up in a few bullets:

  • Rooibos is indeed a potent antioxidant, but when compared against green tea it is less potent (Rooibos is even less potent than lemon juice, which is intermediate to the two)
  • Most of the antioxidant properties come from a molecule known as ‘aspalanthin’ which is unique to Rooibos; unfortunately, the human body doesn’t like to absorb this molecule very well
  • Most of the benefits of Rooibos are tied back to the antioxidant properties, which are outperformed by green tea

In a sense, it is a gentler version of green tea both in taste as well as in health benefits.  If you want to switch up the teas your drink or just try something new, give Rooibos a shot.

Image Source: © soultea.de (http://www.soultea.de/), Photographer André Helbig (http://andrehelbig.de/) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons