Health Benefits of Tea and The Power of Subtraction
Often times it’s not what we put into our bodies that makes us happy, fit, and well, but what we take away.
Indeed, part of the health-giving power of tea—all kinds of tea—is that tea aids in subtraction: by drinking tea we can subtract from our lives many of those harmful substances or habits that compromise our well-being.
To see how health is improved through subtraction, with tea as a facilitator, consider this example.
Let’s say that you have a sweet tooth that you indulge every time you drink a beverage. You start your day with a mound of sugar in your coffee and you get your afternoon pick-me-up with a super-sweet soda.
Later in the day, perhaps before your workout, you gulp down a sugar-saturated “energy” drink.
You know that such large amounts of sugar is bad and you would like to significantly reduce your daily intake.
Easier said that done.
The problem is that you’re not only dependent on the added sugars but you also need the caffeine contained in your daily beverages.
Quitting the sugary drinks altogether is going to be a difficult slog.
What to do?
The Tea Solution
Tea provides a way out of this bio-chemical bind.
Black, green, and oolong teas—each made from leaves of Camellia sinensis plants—are caffeinated by nature while at the same time completely lacking sugars such as fructose.
And unlike coffee, which few folks will consume without cream or sweetners, most camellia teas can be enjoyed without either dairy or added sucrose.
Therefore camellia teas provide the caffeine while subtracting the sugars that contribute to obesity and a host of other ailments.
A switch to camellia tea as your daily beverage is a step closer to being free of sugar dependency.
The Caffeine Challenge
We haven’t entirely solved the problem by switching to camellia tea. There’s caffeine in there and maybe you have trouble sleeping and caffeine aggravates the problem.
Or you wish to become pregnant and you worry about the effects that caffeine will have on your baby.
Unless you want to drink camellia tea that has had caffeine removed by chemical extraction—yuck!—you’ll need a different tea.
Mind the Bushes: There’s A Special Tea in There!
At this point you’re probably wondering how you can take away the caffeine and the sweet-tooth-satisfying sugars and still have a beverage worth drinking.
What kind of drink, you protest, can free you from your dependencies and does such a beverage even exist?
Yes, such a beverage does exist and it’s been hiding in the bush, so to speak.
The name says it all: Rooibos, pronounced “roy-ee-boss,” the Afrikaans word for “red bush;” and honeybush, the English word for, well, honeybush.
Together these two teas are often called bush teas.
Long favored in South Africa as an alternative to imported camellia tea, bush teas are naturally caffeine-free and have no fructose sugars.
And yet bush teas pack flavor, mouthfeel, and natural, non-sugar sweetness, three qualities that we love in our camellia teas. Indeed, these are three characteristics the we seek in nearly all beverages that aren’t merely plain water.
In many ways, the bush teas are wonder teas that may be the solution to your desire to kick the caffeine and sugar habits.
Discovering Bush Teas
Today we are going to dive into the bush teas and see how their unique properties make these teas an exciting addition to your tea pantry.
You may also discover that bush teas are an important aid to improving your health.
Before discussing the specific benefits of bush teas, and then offering our recommendations for bush tea purchases, let’s talk a bit more about this fascinating plant and how it is turned into tea.
What are Rooibos and Honeybush?
Rooibos and honeybush are both members of the legume family of plants and have very different cultivation needs from camellia tea.
In fact, bush tea plant species are so tightly dependent on the unique features of their native habitat in South Africa—the arid fynbos ecoregion—that commercial farming of bush tea outside of this habitat has proved nearly impossible.
In contrast, camellia tea farms have been established across a wide swath of tropical and subtropical regions of the world.
Such geographically limited growth requirements for bush tea give new meaning to the expression sourced at the origin. In other words, if it’s bush tea that you’re drinking then you can be confident that it has been grown and processed within or very close to the fynbos ecoregion.
How Bush Tea is Manufactured
At maturity, rooibos plants resemble a witch’s broom with the handle buried in the ground and the thin, wispy stems pointing to the sky.
Honeybush is similar in form but has more of a bottle-brush structure to its upright stems.
The valuable material for harvest are the stems and the tiny leaves that issue therefrom. Farm workers cut the bunch of stems at the base, leaving the roots in place to grow a new broom in the next season.
After harvest, stem and leaf are immediately transported to a nearby processing facility where the material is first chopped into very small pieces and then directed to one of two procedures.
Green or Red All Over: The Oxidation Difference
Oxidation of chopped plant material is an enzymatic process that radically changes the character of finished tea.
For instance, if the tea maker is creating a bush tea that is finished as green tea, then chopped material goes directly to a outdoor courtyard where it is spread out to dry in the hot summer sun.
Very little biochemical change occurs in dried green tea because plant cells must contain water in order for oxidation to proceed. No water, no oxidation.
Hence, green bush tea is biochemically very similar to fresh-harvested material. This is important because many of the supposed health-promoting compounds such as antioxidants and vitamin C are preserved in high concentrations in green bush teas.
Red Tea Sweat
There is a different path, however, for rooibos or honeybush that is finished as a red tea. Here the chopped material is mechanically bruised in order to release and to mix phytonutrients and oxidation enzymes that occur naturally within the stem and leaf.
Soon after bruising, plant material is laid out in long heaps to oxidize in the sun. It is during the oxidation phase of tea production—what bush tea makers call “the sweat“—where the plant material turns brick red and the natural sweetness of the plant is captured in the tea.
During oxidation, red tea loses vitamin C while preserving many compounds that are of keen interest to health scientists. Among these is the polyphenol aspalathin which is only found in rooibos and has potential as a cancer-fighting agent.
To finish off a red tea, the oxidized material is spread out of the heaps and into a thin layer of material to dry in the sun. Just as with green tea, drying in turn prevents further oxidative change and red tea is ready to be consumed by happy tea drinkers.
All that remains is for finished teas to be sorted, graded, and packed into either loose-leaf packets or single-serving tea bags.
Summary: Benefits of Rooibos and Honeybush Teas
Let’s put this together into a summary of the benefits of bush teas.
Here is what you subtract from your life when you make rooibos or honeybush your daily beverage:
- Caffeine that strings you out
- Fructose that spikes your blood sugar
- Tannins that stain your teeth or give you a tummy ache
- Calories that add to your daily total
That’s right. I didn’t even mention those last two gems, but it’s true. There is very little tannin and no calories in a cup of bush tea!
And here are the benefits you may obtain when you drink bush tea:
- Always sourced at or near the origin of cultivation.
- Naturally caffeine-free so you can enjoy any time of the day; may be good during pregnancy.
- Zero calories and guilt-free.
- Thrives under organic farming methods: no pesticides or herbicides.
- Natural sweetness without added sugar.
- Low in tannins so very little bitterness, no tea stains on the teeth, or harsh stomach.
- Reduced esophageal reflux which is aggravated by caffeine and tannins.
- Green bush teas high in vitamin C.
- Contains health-giving plant polyphenols.
- Packs in antioxidants.
Wow, that’s a lot of goodness! What’s not to like?
Of course not all tastes are the same, and many people will simply not be able to give up their caffeine and sugar. But they should try anyway because you never know what could emerge from a new tea exploration!
Best Rooibos and Honeybush: Our Recommendations
Below I offer to you a compilation of reviews of bush teas that tea drinkers believe are worth your hard-earned cash. I read a lot of comments to pull this together and tried to distill the key features of each tea into useful bits of information. With time I will include my own impressions of these same fine teas.
In no particular order, let’s get started.
Farm to Cup: Cederberg Organic Red Rooibos
One of the miraculous benefits of globalized trade is that you can get what you want from so far away.
Not only do you get what you want, but you can get it direct from the producer and thereby cut down on excessive handling.
In the tea trade, direct from the farm is increasingly valued because of the premium placed on freshness. In addition, tea drinkers want to know who they’re dealing with and direct from the farm to consumer is one powerful way to establish accountability.
So it is that we can order bush teas direct from a farm located in the fynbos of South Africa.
What an amazing world!
To satisfy tea drinker demands, The Cederberg Tea Company, a fynbos-based operation, offers direct to the consumer its Organic Red Rooibos Tea in bleach-free, tagless bags that are fully compostable.
Rooibos lovers report that Cederberg’s rooibos tea has a sweetness that borders on fruity, and a robustness to the red liquor (that’s the part you drink) that makes a statement without being overbearing.
And if you like to make iced tea, you can steep these rooibos tea bags for a long time without fear of bringing out any bitterness.
Finally, Cederberg Tea Company is reported to have prompt customer service. If you have a problem with your purchase, contact them and they’ll straighten-out things.
Tea type: Red rooibos
Bags or loose: Bags
Top reviewer notes: Robust with hint of fruit + direct from the farm authenticity
Packing: 5 sealed foiled packs with 20 bags each = 100 tea bags per box
The Sublime Blend of Vanilla and Rooibos Tea: Equal Exchange Organic Vanilla Rooibos
It’s a curious thing that bush teas blend so well with the deep, rich flavor of vanilla bean, but they do just that.
Vanilla enjoyed as either ground vanilla bean or as vanilla-bean extract is pungent and aromatic. These are two qualities that are valued in camellia tea so this may explain why bush tea drinkers like a vanilla blend too.
Tazo Vanilla Rooibos Discontinued
Long loved by rooibos tea drinkers, the vanilla-flavored bush tea from Tazo, a seller of fine teas, is no longer being offered by the company. You many find this favorite Tazo tea on the secondary market, but eventually this supply will be exhausted and in the meantime you’ll pay a premium.
But fear not! There are alternative vanilla-flavored bush tea brands that are palate pleasers.
There’s a catch, however. All brands that I have researched offer only bush teas with natural vanilla flavoring, which is to say that the source of vanilla is not directly from the bean but from the food laboratory.
Natural flavors are not all bad and there’s no evidence I’m aware of that they’re harmful. But if you’re looking for an authentic source of vanilla flavor you’ll have to search pretty hard.
However, if you’re at peace with natural flavorings, then try this highly-rated vanilla rooibos from Equal Exchange, a worker-owner cooperative that only contracts with small co-op farms.
According to tea tasters, Equal Exchange organic vanilla rooibos tea is sweet and tangy and has the pungent, aromatic quality that is really unique to a vanilla and rooibos blend.
There are no other herbs or spices added to this rooibos so you’re getting just the two main ingredients and nothing else.
Each string-free, tag-free tea bag is individually wrapped to preserve freshness. Try this tea by Equal Exchange to raise your social conscious and feed your vanilla-rooibos craving.
Tea type: Vanilla-flavored rooibos
Bags or loose: Bags
Top reviewer notes: Sweet & fresh with vanilla highlights + supports small farmers
Packing: 20 tea bags per box; 3 boxes total = 60 tea bags in all
A Community-Spirited Tea Importer: My Red Tea Organic Rooibos Tea
Sometimes in the business world what you return to the local community is as important as what you produce for the consumer.
Case in point: My Red Tea Company returns at least 10% of company profits to South African bush tea farmers. These donations go directly into improving schools for the children of farmers in the area where My Red Tea purchases tea for re-sale abroad.
You might ask if charitable giving creates positive goodwill that improves the tea, and my answer is that I don’t know.
But one thing for certain is that reviewers love this rooibos tea. They find it to be earthy but not overly fragrant; full of body but not astringent; mellow yet hearty.
That sounds like the taste of goodwill to me!
And My Red Tea is resource-conscious too. They are committed to reducing consumption of materials which is why their tea bags are string-free, staple-free, and chlorine-free. After steeping, these bags will be welcome in your compost pile.
Tea type: Red rooibos
Bags or loose: Bags
Top reviewer notes: Earthy but not over-bearing + pay-it-forward ethic
Packing: 4 sealed packets with 20 bags each = 80 bags total.
Budget-friendly and Much Respected: Freshpak Red Rooibos
I have noticed that tea drinkers have very strong brand loyalty and it’s not hard to see why.
You get used to a brand and you don’t want to switch because you don’t see the point. There’s comfort in reliability and tea is supposed to be a comfort.
The red rooibos tea produced by The Freshpak Company is just such a comfort, and more. This South African company has been in operation for decades and its devotees swear by Freshpak tea.
Indeed, many tea reviewers have been drinking Freshpak red rooibos for so long that they can make robust claims that consumers of other less established brands cannot make.
For example, reviewers find that Freshpak is:
- Always rich, deep-bodied with beautiful red liquor;
- Consistent in quality, packaging, and price;
- Doesn’t stain teeth. Ever.
Seriously. Many have been drinking Freshpak red rooibos since before they even had teeth and attest to the fact that this red-colored drink does not stain teeth red.
Find another tea maker that can make such a bold claim!
It’s true that you won’t be drinking tea made by the hippest company around, but sometimes the old school is the best school. Freshpak has been pleasing tea drinkers for years so they must be doing something right.
Type: red rooibos
Bags or loose: Bags
Reviewer highlights: Consistent high quality + affordable + sparkling teeth
Packing: 2 tea bags per sealed pack x 40 packs = 80 tea bags total per box
Shaking More Flavor Blends Out of That Bush Than You Thought Possible: Positively Tea Company Rooibos Tea Blends
I already extolled the virtues of a rooibos blended with essence of vanilla. That’s some good stuff.
But did you think that was all that a clever tea maker could do with this amazing bush? Not even close!
See if you find the following rooibos labels alluring:
- Root Beer Rooibos
- Turmeric Peach Nectar Rooibos
- Red Christmas Rooibos
- Blueberry Green Rooibos
- Rooibos Chocolate Chai
- Island Breeze Rooibos
- Cranberry Orange Rooibos
I’m not much for tea blends, but these labels are really intriguing. And believe it or not, they’re all from the same seller: Organic Positively Tea Company.
How do they do it? First, they start with a quality supply of red or green rooibos, which they also have available for sale.
Second, they source added ingredients from quality organic suppliers. Each tea blend has several herbs or spices mixed along with the rooibos.
And finally they found a tea taster with a special knack for combining unusual flavors.
The sum is greater than the parts
For instance, the Turmeric Peach Nectar blend has each of those things but also diced apple and lemon myrtle. I don’t even know what lemon myrtle is but I want to try it.
Or the Island Breeze Rooibos, which contains neither islands or breeze I presume, but instead has bits of mango, papaya, and rose hips. Reviewers report that this blend is light and airy (that’s the breeze part) and will keep you cool when it’s iced and served on a hot afternoon.
And what about the Root Beer Rooibos blend? Licorice, fennel seeds, cloves, among other spices are in this concoction. And though it’s reported that the root beer flavor isn’t really punchy, there’s enough root beer mouthfeel to make this blend a favorite among rooibos aficionados.
There are too many rooibos blends form Positively Tea to review them all. If you would like to explore the ingredients of each of the dozen or so now available, follow the link below.
And one other thing. These blends are loose leaf and so you’ll need a tea strainer or tea infuser to screen out the bits and pieces of tea and other ingredients. I recommend the FORLIFE Capsule strainer that holds up to 1 cup of tea which means there’s lots of room for expansion of steeping tea.
Type: Organic rooibos blends with many different ingredients
Bag or loose: Loose
Reviewer highlights: Remarkably diverse and pleasing assortment of flavors
Packing: One pound of loose leaf material in stand-up, zip-tight bag
Putting it together: Summary of Recommendations
So there’s a lot to choose from in the world of bush teas. And there seems to be more options as the market expands with time.
Allow me to sum up my recommendations as follows:
- If you want a great-tasting rooibos tea that is harvested, packed, and shipped directly from the farm in South Africa, then try what’s cooking at the Cederberg Tea Co.
- Lovers of vanilla-flavored treats will want to experience the wonderfully rich and aromatic combination of vanilla and red rooibos that is offered by Equal Exhange, a worker-owner cooperative.
- Those that want to purchase their red rooibos from a company that invests in local farm communities, should look into the teas that are sourced by the My Red Tea Company. They give back a portion of all profits to schools in the farm communities.
- If you seek a bush tea for daily consumption that’s easy on the budget and very consistent from one day to the next, then you can do no better than Freshpak red rooibos tea bags.
- And finally, if you like a lot of flavor variety to your tea, then explore the remarkable bush tea blends that Positively Tea Company has put together. You’ll find at least one that hits the high notes that you’re looking for.
The Bottom Line: Tea and Health
Adding things to our diets to make us well is usually speculative in terms of benefits. Subtracting things that are obviously bad is a no-brainer. Most types of teas, and the bush teas in particular, can help us subtract the bad things in a way that has few, if any, long-term consequences.
Unless, of course, the long-term consequence is drinking a beverage that brings warmth and joy into your life. That’s a change that we can all live with.
Explore the teas reviewed here and I think you’ll find a way to add more joy to your day.
Klipopmekaar. Production Process (retrieved 16 April, 2019). http://www.klipopmekaar.co.za/rooibos-farm/production-process/
Morton, J. (1983). Rooibos Tea, Aspalathus linearis, a Caffeineless, Low-Tannin Beverage. Economic Botany. Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1983), pp. 164-173.
South African Honeybush Tea Association. Honeybush (retrieved 14 April, 2019). https://sahoneybush.co.za/honeybush/6.html