R4.5 million injection for Rooibos research

The SA Rooibos Council (SARC) is ramping up research efforts to better understand exactly how indigenous Rooibos tea could help tackle some of the most prevalent diseases of our time.

Prof Jeanine Marnewick, CPUT’s Oxidative Stress Research Centre with Joe Swart, SARC research director
Prof Jeanine Marnewick and Joe Swart

A hefty R4.5-million will be invested into further researching Rooibos’ potential to reduce allergies, heart disease, diabetes and skin cancer between now and 2022. In SA alone, these diseases affect more than 43 million people.

Scientists will also investigate Rooibos’ impact on gut flora and to what extent it can lessen the side effects of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

The announcement was made recently at a Rooibos Science Café, held in partnership with the SARC and Wesgro – the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for the Western Cape.

It’s time to prove Rooibos’ efficacy

Joe Swart, research director for the SARC, says Rooibos is a good source of unique and beneficial bio-actives such as antioxidants, different to those found in other teas, fruits and vegetables. It is particularly rich in phytochemicals such as flavonoids and polyphenols, which contribute to its health benefits.

‘Due to the large and growing worldwide use of natural derived substances for healthy living, it is imperative SARC obtains reliable data on Rooibos’ healing potential, since many other herbal-based treatments lack definitive evidence.

‘We want to provide both healthcare practitioners and patients with sufficient proof of Rooibos’ efficacy in helping to prevent and manage certain diseases. Over the last decade the SARC has invested significantly in research to do just that,’ Swart comments.

Research journey reaches final leg

‘We’ve reached an exciting stage in the Rooibos research journey. After years of systematic and thorough research conducted specifically on Rooibos’ impact on heart health, we will be progressing to the final leg of the research phase – intervention trials on humans,’ he remarks.

The intervention trial, which will be led by Prof Jeanine Marnewick, Head of Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s (CPUT) Oxidative Stress Research Centre, will for the first time determine just how much Rooibos (equivalent to a cup of tea) is required in a condensed form to serve the purpose of a nutraceutical to support heart health.

Prof Marnewick says the 12-week-long trial is key to understanding how a dietary intervention, such as Rooibos can change the outcome of specifically cardiovascular disease risk factors.

‘Rooibos will be put through its paces as we investigate its impact on various risk factors associated with the development of heart disease, including cholesterol profile, oxidative damage to lipids, redox status, inflammatory responses, metabolic disease, blood pressure, and genetic variability in 300 adults. It’s a first of its kind intervention study involving the use of a uniquely South African product,’ says Swart.

The trial will commence in August 2019 and the findings should be made public by the end of 2022.

Additional research on the cards

Other studies that have been given the green light include Rooibos’ impact on hay fever and chronic rhinitis, which will be conducted by the UCT Lung Institute. The Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology and the Massey University in New Zealand will combine their expertise to look at how the herbal tea can improve glycaemic control in people with pre-diabetes and/or type II diabetes.

Further research will also be conducted at CPUT into Rooibos’ potential to boost athletic performance; its effect on autoimmune skin diseases, such as psoriasis and vitiligo; and its chemo-preventative properties on the early stages of skin cancer. The latter forms part of a larger study aimed at developing therapeutic creams or gels by inhibiting chronic inflammation and reducing skin cancer incidence.

Stellenbosch University will also further examine the cardio-protective effects of Rooibos on ART, since HIV-positive individuals on antiretroviral therapy have an increased risk of heart disease. A recent animal study conducted by the university found that supplementing with Rooibos reduced the harmful cardiovascular effects caused by ART.

Stellenbosch University is also currently investigating how Aspalathin, a flavonoid unique to Rooibos, could counter the effects of obesity. If successful, work will commence on an anti-obesity Rooibos supplement. The study has already caught the attention of the international scientific community who will be following the progress closely.

Another project, which is in its concluding phase is the effects of Rooibos tea on microbiota regulation. Understanding microbiota interactions is an exciting area of research which may contribute to new insights into a range of diseases. This project is currently being conducted by the SA Medical Research Council.

Rooibos Route combines agri production and tourism

‘Without a doubt, Rooibos research is on the move,’ says Swart. ‘We are at the threshold of a new era of natural products research globally, which could give rise to multiple new medicinal applications for herbs such as Rooibos.’

Tim Harris, CEO of Wesgro, says it is encouraging to see the volume of research being done on Rooibos, which has become one of SA’s most sought-after exports.

‘In addition to providing more than 8 000 jobs with further employment being created in upstream manufacturing activities, Rooibos is poised to further boost the Western Cape’s coffers by way of agri-tourism, turning Clanwilliam – the heartland of Rooibos – into an attractive tourism destination. The recent launch of the “Rooibos Route” is already bearing fruit of the success that can be had from combining agricultural production with tourism.’

Keep an eye on the SARC website for more information and updates on these studies.