#BrandFocus: Rooibos — the tea that’s not a tea
by Sabrina Forbes. “Rooibos tea isn’t actually a tea. The plant is from the legume family,” says Adele du Toit, South African Rooibos Council media and communications director. “It’s also in the fynbos biome. There are six floral kingdoms all over the world and fynbos is one of them. The fynbos Cape region is the only floral kingdom that is in one country. The other kingdoms span over countries and even some continents,” she adds.
According to Du Toit, out of the 15 000 tonnes of rooibos produced a year, 50% of it is consumed in South Africa. The biggest global markets are Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands, countries that already have a big tea-drinking culture and which are looking for new, ethnic teas to explore. These three make up approximately 70% of the remaining 50% exported from Clanwilliam in the Western Cape every year. This dry land crop can handle extreme weather conditions, from 50°C summers to wet winter nights that drop well below zero.
The South African Rooibos Council is an independent organisation charged with the task of promoting the health and wellness attributes of the product to consumers across the globe, with a primary mission of facilitating and supporting the relevant scientific research to back these claims. Du Toit says that, as a proudly South African product and one that grows nowhere else in the world, other than within a 100km radius of Clanwilliam, rooibos is a national treasure, and an affordable health solution for everybody.
Indigenous Khoisan groups in the Clanwilliam area had been preparing rooibos as a tea as far back as 300 years ago but the commercial history of rooibos dates back to the early Dutch settlers, who started drinking brewed rooibos as an alternative to the expensive black tea imported into Europe. Rooibos got its name in 1772 and the first person to export it was not a Dutch settler but rather a Russian Jewish immigrant, Benjamin Ginsberg, who discovered the potential of this unique ‘mountain tea’ in 1904.
The Khoisan, made up of the Griqua, the Cape-Khoi, the Nama, the Korana, and the San, are well-known to be one of the most-oppressed indigenous collectives in the world. Previously left without the right to claim any benefits from the use of indigenous SA plant matter like rooibos, this is all about to change. As recently reported by Daily Maverick, the UN Nagoya Protocol has just recognised the claim of these five groups to their heritage; this protocol is a “supplementary agreement to the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity… Among its founding purposes was to ensure the ‘fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources’.”
Ultimately, indigenous communities will be compensated for their knowledge on rooibos and included in research studies going forward. The landmark agreement took nine years but, finally, the Khoisan people will derive benefit for playing their part in the development of this R50m industry, according to nature.com.
Lauded as a Top 50 superfood by Time Magazine, rooibos is growing in popularity, not only as a teatime experience for those who prefer to stay away from caffeine but also as a food rich in antioxidants. With an active shelf life potentially spanning up to 80 years, according to a Stellenbosch University study, rooibos has been at the heart of many scientific studies by the likes of Stellenbosch University, the Nelson Mandela University of Technology, and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Cape Town University, in particular, is looking at the affect rooibos has on combating allergies, especially those caused by pollen.
Stellenbosch University this year announced its ongoing study that will look to link the potential ingestion of rooibos with weight-loss, citing obesity as among the most-common causes of non-communicable diseases in SA. It started its rooibos research in 2017, looking at the cardio-protective capacity of rooibos when it comes to helping the body cope with excessive blood glucose (type 2 diabetes being another major cause of non-communicable disease locally).
This year, reports TimesLive, the South African Rooibos Council has invested R4.5m into research. Because rooibos is a part of the legume family, it is naturally caffeine-free and contains a unique antioxidant, aspalathin, not found anywhere other than in rooibos; this flavonoid is particularly good at lowering blood glucose.
“With something as simple as a cup of rooibos tea, you can improve your health, which I think is very exciting,” says Du Toit. While rooibos is an acquired taste for many, she shares that a lot of consumers choose to ingest their rooibos health properties through a pill. But, for those who enjoy its flavour, Agricultural Research Council and Stellenbosch University have created a flavour wheel to help explain what one may expect from the ‘varietals’ — the flavours are directly linked to the soil, region, weather, and slope on which the plant was grown.
South African story
Branding the product for export can be challenging, says Du Toit. Luckily, though, the majority of the existing bigger export markets are primarily interested in the scientific research regarding the product, plus the very South African story that follows it. There’s no other plant like rooibos in the world, with needle-like leaves and a growth region of only 100km.
As a product that’s growing in popularity, rooibos easily showcases its versatility as an ingredient: people all over the world are starting to use it in both savoury and sweet cooking, sharing their creations on social media. The global health craze has something to do with it, believes Du Toit.
“If you think about what’s happening in the world at the moment, people are looking for healthier alternatives. It’s really top of mind to look after your body and look for interesting ways to live in health and wellness. If you look at tea, it’s interesting because tea has a nicer connotation to it. If you drink your cup of tea, you’re taking some time out for yourself. It is a ritual that some people enjoy during their day. It feels like home,” she says.
While Du Toit enjoys her rooibos strong and black, she recommends everyone try it with a stick or sprinkle of cinnamon. Apparently, your mind will be blown.
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Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced writer covering the food, health, lifestyle, beverage, marketing and media industries. She runs her own full-stack web/app development and digital-first content creation company. For more, go to moonwrench.com. She is a contributing writer to MarkLives.com.