Rooibos Tea

14 September 2004
The drink that could prevent cancer
(The Guardian, August 31, 2004)

Scientists say there are three major ways to cut the risk of cancer. Don’t smoke, don’t become fat, and follow a balanced diet. Now from South Africa comes a potential fourth tip: drink rooibos tea. If you have never heard of it, you are not alone. Rooibos has been one of the more esoteric products in the herbal-remedy section of health shops, a strange-sounding name to match a strange taste drawn from the needle-like leaves of a plant found only on the slopes of the Cederberg mountains outside Cape Town. . . . For centuries, indigenous bushmen have sworn by the health-giving properties of the tea.

European settlers who picked up the habit agreed there was something special about rooibos – Afrikaans for red bush – and even bathed their children with it. Now science suggests they may have been on to something. New research provides tantalising evidence that the tea can help ward off cancer. Rats and mice that drank it were found to have effective protection against a variety of cancers. . . . There is no proof yet that humans benefit, but makers are anticipating increased demand, with the likes of Tetley’s, Twinings and Taylor’s introducing ranges.

Boxes are popping up in Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury and Boots. Coca-Cola is rumoured to be preparing to get in on the act with a rooibos-flavoured iced tea. . . . “I’m pretty confident it will protect humans from environmentally and dietary-induced cancer, but to what extent isn’t clear yet,” said Dr Jeanine Marnewick, a biochemist leading a rooibos study at South Africa’s Medical Research Council. She thinks extracts might one day be included in sun creams, and that the version you drink could be classified a drug rather than a refreshment. Clinical trials are years away, but Marnewick is not waiting that long: “I now drink about a litre a day, five or six cups.” . . . Aspalathus linearis, to give the plant its Latin name, is in fact a legume, not a tea in the conventional sense. Laboratory tests show the rich level of antioxidants help rodents prone to cancer by “scavenging” the free-radical molecules which attack their cells.

In other words, rooibos boosts the body’s ability to prevent the disease by increasing detoxifying liver enzymes and arresting, or at least slowing down, DNA mutation (“antimutagenic activity”). . . . Researchers first tested rooibos in a test tube and found that it inhibited 90% of bacterial DNA mutations. The next stage was to put the tea in rats’ drinking water for 10 weeks, after which a sample of their livers was added to a bacterium exposed to a toxic chemical. Again, the mutations were inhibited. This showed that rooibos was available to and absorbed by the body and responsible for the protection, said Marnewick. . . . The next step was to test rooibos using a cancer model. Mice were divided into two groups, with one group treated with rooibos and the other water. Cancer was induced in all. Photographs taken weeks later tell a dramatic story: those denied the tea developed angry-looking lesions on their skin, known as papillomas. . . .

Today 13,000 hectares are under cultivation, yielding around 8,000 tonnes annually of which just under half is drunk in South Africa and the rest exported mostly to Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. Sales in the US have been stymied by a court battle with an American firm which trademarked rooibos as its own brand. . . . Britain is the fourth biggest export market, consuming 188 tonnes last year, a leap from 72 tonnes in 2001. “It started with the health and organic drinkers but is now entering the mainstream,”


  1. Yes, rooibos is great stuff. Tasty, too. Another coffee alternative, by the way, is yerba mate. This seems to be a decent site: Yerbe Mate
    Dave Seidel    Mar 18, 05:56 PM    #
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