Q: I try to stay away from caffeine, but I love tea and its health benefits. I saw “red tea” at the grocery store the other day. The package said it is caffeine-free. Is this a good way to get the health benefits of tea without the caffeine?
Dr. Wright: The importers and marketers would like you to think so, but it’s not quite that simple.
“Red tea,” or rooibos (pronounced roy-boss), isn’t actually tea at all. It comes from a plant called Aspalanthus linearis that grows primarily in South Africa. True tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. The only difference between the various teas — the black, green, and white varieties — that come from the camellia sinensis plant is the amount of time spent in processing. That process affects how much of the original health benefits remain in the tea. Generally, the less time tea is processed, the better. White tea is the least processed of all, and carries the most significant health benefits. Black tea is the most processed, and thus has the least of the stellar health benefits — but they are present, nonetheless.
The tricky part here is that the manufacturers are calling rooibos tea when, technically, it isn’t, and that they’re saying it has all the health benefits that tea offers without the caffeine. That could be slightly misleading. Rooibos does contain some polyphenols, which have proven to ward off some forms of cancer. But studies show it contains about half as many polyphenols as green tea, although the marketing claims say the polyphenol content is equal. It also appears to have minimal amounts of calcium, potassium, zinc, and magnesium than is found in true teas.
This isn’t to say that rooibos isn’t good for you. South Africans have used it for years to soothe upset stomachs and relieve hay fever symptoms. But while it might offer its own unique benefits, rooibos clearly is not real tea’s health equivalent.