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Glass of red bush tea

What is rooibos tea?

19 Oct 2023 • 3 min read

From relative obscurity to becoming a household staple, rooibos (pronounced ROY-boss), or red bush tea, is one of the most popular herbal teas available today - with over 6 billion cups worth produced each year.

Whether you use it as a tasty base for a tea latte, drink it with milk and sugar, or simply enjoy steeped leaves ‘black’, rooibos is a tasty caffeine-free alternative to black tea or coffee.

With famous fans including Oprah Winfrey, Simon le Bon and Trevor Noah, and immortalised in the pages of Alexander McCall Smith’s book series, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, it’s safe to say that rooibos tea has secured its place in our hearts (and cupboards)!

In this article, we look at where rooibos tea comes from, the benefits of drinking red bush and why it is not actually a tea…

What is roobios tea?

Rooibos is a popular and delicious herbal tea made from infusing water with the leaves and fine stems of the South African Aspalathus Linearis (A. Linearis) plant.1   That said, as rooibos does not derive from the Camellia Sinensis plant (from which green and black teas are made), it is technically a tisane (herbal infusion) rather than a ‘true tea’.
The stems and leaves are harvested by hand, left to sweat in bundles, dried, graded and then finally packed. The leaves turn their distinctive red colour through oxidisation while they are being processed. More recently, another variant, green rooibos, has also been gaining popularity – with this variation, growers avoid oxidation by immediately drying the leaves once cut.2

A member of the legume family, the rooibos shrub is only found in one specific mountainous region of South Africa. Although red bush is a distant relative of peas, beans, soy and peanuts, allergic reactions to rooibos tea are uncommon. However, if you do experience any sort of reaction after consuming red bush tea, stop drinking immediately and seek help from a doctor.3

Why is rooibos also called 'red bush' tea?

Rooibos tea is made from the leaves of the A. Linearis shrub which is unique to the Cedarberg mountains in South Africa. It is also commonly referred to as red bush tea, which is a translation of the Afrikaans name for the shrub; rooi meaning ‘red’ + bos meaning ‘forest, bush, shrub’.4

Although red bush has only been used in commercial tea production since the 1930s, the plant has been cultivated and harvested by indigenous bushmen (the KhoiSan people) of the Cederberg region of South Africa for centuries.5

The people of the Cedarberg region also called rooibos naaldetee (meaning ‘needle tea’) previously. However, this name has since faded into obscurity.6

Meaning of 'rooibos'

Rooibos tea gets its name from the rooibos shrub from which it is made. Interestingly, the leaves of the rooibos plant are actually green but turn a deep dark red through oxidisation – hence the traditional Afrikaans name for the shrub, rooibosch (meaning redbush).  

4 benefits of rooibos tea

1. Rooibos is a source of some unique polyphenols 

Rooibos is the sole natural known source of the polyphenol flavonoid aspalathin, and one of two naturally occurring sources of another polyphenol, nothofagin.7

Polyphenols are common in plants and serve several functions. These include:8
  • Attracting insects 
  • Feeding repellents 
  • Pigmentation and photoreception 
  • Protecting the plant from sun/light 
  • Antimicrobial activity 
  • Fighting free radicals (antioxidant effect) 
 Aspalathin specifically has been observed to improve carbohydrate metabolism and glucose homeostasis.9,10 One study looking at these effects concluded that this compound could even be useful in the management of hyperglycaemia and obesity.11

In general, consuming food and drink with high levels of antioxidants is said to be beneficial to health.12 Antioxidants play an important role in protecting cells from free radical damage, and lucky for us, there is some evidence that suggests rooibos tea can increase antioxidant levels in the body.13

Unfermented (green) Rooibos has been reported to have higher levels of antioxidants than traditional, fermented Rooibos.14

2. Low (or no) calorie 

Rooibos tea contains zero calories when enjoyed without milk or other added ingredients which is great for those trying to lose a few pounds or maintain a healthy weight.

3. Naturally caffeine free 

Rooibos tea is a brilliant naturally caffeine free alternative to your usual black tea or coffee. Many people nowadays try to limit their caffeine intake or go completely caffeine free for a multitude of reasons. Whether you are looking to improve your quality of sleep, to reduce anxiety or even improve gut health, cutting out the caffeine might be the right choice for you.15,16,17

4. Low tannins (4.4%)

Unlike green and black tea, red bush tea contains virtually no tannins (4.4%).18  Tannins are a type of polyphenol found in many plants and other organic matter, and are considered responsible for the somewhat bitter taste and astringency associated with many teas.19

Due to its low levels of tannins, rooibos is a great choice if you are looking for a milder tasting tea.

What does rooibos tea taste like?

Rooibos tea is generally slightly more mild in taste than a black or green tea, but still fairly robust. Because of this, redbush tea is one of the only tisanes suitable for drinking with milk.

Conventional red rooibos tea should have subtle sweet, nutty and woody notes.20  If you get a higher quality rooibos, you may start to pick up more fruity and faintly sweet (almost caramel) flavours. 

Green rooibos is lighter with a mellow taste, and earthy, grassy undertones.21

With it’s rise in popularity, teamakers have started to experiment with using rooibos as a base other flavour blends. You can get everything from vanilla rooibos to earl grey varieties – making it even easier to find a rooibos tea that delights your tastebuds! 

Can you drink rooibos tea during pregnancy?

While it’s wise to practice caution with what you eat and drink during pregnancy, rooibos tea is one of several types of tea widely considered safe to consume during pregnancy.

Current NHS guideline suggest limiting your daily caffeine intake to 200mg per day while pregnant, so if English breakfast and coffee are your go-to choices you may have to look for low caffeine alternatives!22  As rooibos is naturally caffeine-free, it’s a brilliant pregnancy-safe alternative to your usual pick me up.

The final say… 

  • As one of the youngest tea industries in the World, South African rooibos tea has seen an incredible rise in popularity as an alternative to black and green tea, due to its robust flavour profile and reported health benefits. 
  • You may see rooibos marketed as ‘red bush’ tea, especially in the UK, but rest assured they are the same delicious beverage. 
  • Rooibos is full of surprising benefits – from being packed full of antioxidants to being naturally caffeine-free. 
  • If you are looking for a pregnancy-safe, comforting cuppa, rooibos might be an excellent choice.

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1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/aspalathus-linearis 
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