Tuesday, 22 July 2008

In my cup today

Today is a festival of rooibos (yesterday was too), which is one of the teas which my friend so very kindly brought up for me from Melbourne when she came to visit on the weekend.

I haven’t had any rooibos (pronounced roy-boss) for ages, due to the difficulty of getting any at a reasonable price in Canberra, and had nearly forgotten how nice it is. It’s fragrant and sweet-smelling and brews up to a really lovely deep red-brown colour, but because it has little or no tannins it is not astringent or bitter at all, even if you forget about it and leave it to steep for too long. Which I do, fairly regularly.

Here is a handy Wikipedia article about rooibos, including a little bit of information about its health benefits which are helping to make it so popular these days. It’s meant to be frightfully good for you because it contains antioxidants (no one wants to hear about boring plain old minerals, amino acids or vitamins any more, apparently, it’s superfoods or nothing). This means that it will help to prevent damage to organs like the brain and the heart and will help to boost your immune system. If you are herbally or chemical-analysisly minded (ok, I made that last word up) have a look here at page 3 of the Rooibos Story on www.rooibos.com – if you scroll down a bit you will find an analysis of the metabolites of rooibos and their potential effects.

The list is fairly impressive, and includes anti-allergic, antibacterial & anti-fungal, hypotensive (reduces blood pressure), expectorant (gets rid of mucus from your lungs) and anti-hepatotoxic (which means it helps stop bad things happening to your liver). Now apparently these results came from the water soluble metabolites so it seems like you should be fairly sure of getting at least some of these in your cup of rooibos tea, which is good news. Of course these are not the only reasons to drink it – it actually tastes nice as well and blends beautifully with other flavours, particularly floral ones like rose petals.

Ha, I recall that I would haplessly recommend rooibos as a substitute for caffeinated tea at the health food store where I used to work, which led to me being vilified by tea-drinking customers as an ivory-tower herbal nut who didn’t know what I was talking about (‘It doesn’t taste anything like tea, it’s disgusting’). Well, ok, no it doesn’t taste that much like regular tea, although the colour is pretty good (like a nice robust Assam) and it does have a nice round flavour and can take some milk as well if you want it to. I suppose when you’re a grumpy customer who’s just been told you can’t have anything that you like any more because it’s bad for your health at the moment you are not in the best position to appreciate the plusses of something like rooibos.

So if that’s the good news, then what’s the bad? Not much, it would seem, although I did come across this article from August 2006 (through a link at The Simple Leaf blog) which raises concerns about the impact which intensive rooibos cultivation is having on parts of the South African eco-system. This is because with the increasing demand for rooibos, more farmers are beginning to grow it and they have been (sometimes illegally) ploughing up previously uncultivated land to do so, thus potentially further endangering already endangered species of plants in those areas.

This is a bit depressing (although it’s not just rooibos to blame, other types of farming are involved too), not to mention concerning. What to do? I’m not sure. It may be possible to purchase certified sustainably farmed rooibos from responsible growers, but as we are all becoming more and more aware, certification is just another minefield for consumers to get taken advantage of in. I will still continue to drink rooibos, in the meantime… just not too much.

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