Latest findings on polyphenols and antioxidants in Rooibos

Stellenbosch, 28 August 2012

In a three-year study supported by the SA Rooibos Council (2009 – 2011) Prof Lizette Joubert and her team at the Nietvoorbij Research Institute of Agricultural Research Council looked at the variation in phenolic content and antioxidant activity of fermented Rooibos tea, and how this is affected by different production seasons and quality grades.


The aim of this study was to generate representative content values for the principal monomeric phenolic compounds present in a ‘cup-of-tea’ rooibos infusion as normally consumed (regular, fermented Rooibos tea).

Samples were obtained from different geographical areas, and different producers, to capture as much potential variation in the phenolic composition and antioxidant activity as possible to create a representative data set suitable for inclusion in food composition databases. A total of 114 Rooibos samples were analysed over three productions seasons (2009, 2010 and 2011) and quality grades (A, B, C and D).

Their research article based on the outcomes of this study has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry (published online on 24 Aug 2012 – see http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/jf302583r).

Key findings from the study

  1. The major phenolic constituents in fermented rooibos are isoorientin and orientin (> 10 mg/L), with quercetin-3-robinobioside, phenylpyruvic acid glucoside and aspalathin present at > 5 mg/L. Isovitexin, vitexin and hyperoside were present at < 3 mg/L, rutin, ferulic acid and isoquercitrin at < 2 mg/L and nothofagin at < 1 mg/L. Only traces of luteolin-7-O27 glucoside and the aglycones quercetin, luteolin, and chrysoeriol were present. (See Table 5 in research article.)
  2. Substantial variation was observed in the individual content values of the phenolic compounds and total antioxidant capacity within production seasons and quality grades.
  3. Production season had no significant effect on the total polyphenol content.
  4. The higher quality grade samples tend to be associated with higher levels of the phenolic compounds (Table 6). Grade A samples had the highest mean values for most phenolic compounds and also contained significantly higher levels of aspalathin, isoquercitrin, rutin, hyperoside and quercetin-3-O-robinobioside than the other grades.

Researchers optimistic about anti-diabetic potential of rooibos

Cape Town, South Africa – With World Diabetes Day in sight on 14 November, new evidence of the anti-diabetic potential of Rooibos has emerged …

Cape Town, South Africa – With World Diabetes Day in sight on 14 November, new evidence of the anti-diabetic potential of Rooibos has emerged from a study conducted jointly at the Diabetes Discovery Platform from South Africa’s Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Agricultural Research Council’s (ARC) Infruitec-Nietvoorbij Institute. Researchers found that an aspalathin-enriched extract of green Rooibos is able to lower raised glucose levels in the blood of diabetic rats. Aspalathin is a unique antioxidant found in nature only in the Rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis). When combined with rutin, another key compound in Rooibos tea, the glucose-lowering action was further enhanced.

Working with diabetic rats, the researchers were able to show that the Rooibos extract could achieve a glucose lowering effect comparable to known diabetic drugs.

“Our work confirms the constituents present in Rooibos could prove beneficial in the fight against diabetes,” says Doctor Johan Louw of the MRC who led the study. “We believe that Rooibos can provide a basis to develop a standardised anti-diabetic product and in a country like South Africa, where a large section of the population relies on herbal medicines, such a product could be of huge value.”

“We have also confirmed that the polyphenols in complex mixtures, such as Rooibos tea, work synergistically to achieve favourable health effects,” Louw explains. “This points to the value of drinking the ‘whole’ tea containing the required amount of these beneficial constituents, rather than a tablet containing just one of the compounds.

“Our Rooibos research to date focused mostly on the antioxidant activity of Rooibos, but this evidence of its ability to lower blood glucose levels opens up new and exciting possibilities for this unique South African herb” says Prof Lizette Joubert of the ARC who collaborated on this project. “We now need to dig deeper to determine the optimal combination and ratio of the active compounds such as aspalathin and rutin in controlling blood glucose levels, and also to understand the exact mechanisms involved.” Follow-up studies indicated that other compounds are also important.

The study has been published online on 19 October 2012 in the Journal of Phytomedicine. (http://www.phytomedicinejournal.com/article/S0944-7113(12)00320-0/abstract)

This Rooibos and diabetes study was funded jointly by the National Research Foundation of South Africa, the Medical Research Council and the Agricultural Research Council, with contributions to post-doctoral fellowships from the Department of Science and Technology. Prof Stephen Fey from the University of Southern Denmark also collaborated on the study.

Notes for editors

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 439 million people will have diabetes by 2030, with the major increase occurring in developing countries.

Rooibos may deter fat cell development

A new in vitro study in mouse cells suggests that Rooibos could inhibit the development of fat cells, or adipocytes, if the active compounds are able to reach pre-adipocytes (immature fat cells). The study, which was a collaboration between the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), has been accepted for publication and is currently in press in Phytomedicine
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0944711313003140)

Dr Micheline Sanderson
Dr Micheline Sanderson, first author of a recent paper about the effects of Rooibos on adipogenesis (or the development of fat cells), preparing a cell culture used in Rooibos research at South Africa’s Medical Research Council.
A new in vitro study in mouse cells suggests that Rooibos could inhibit the development of fat cells, or adipocytes, if the active compounds are able to reach pre-adipocytes (immature fat cells). The study, which was a collaboration between the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), has been accepted for publication and is currently in press in Phytomedicine
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0944711313003140)

Fatty tissue develops when pre-adipocytes grow into mature, lipid-accumulating adipocytes during a process known as adipogenesis. After previous Rooibos studies hinted at the anti-obesity potential of Rooibos, researchers decided to investigate the effect of hot water-soluble matter from traditional Rooibos on the differentiation of mouse embryonic fibroblasts (a pre-adipocyte) into adipocytes.

“Every cup of tea is different,” says the MRC’s Dr Christo Muller, “but the ‘standard’ infusion process we used to obtain the soluble matter of Rooibos is a starting point for investigating the possible health benefits of this South African household favourite.”

“Standard” in this case refers to a 5-minute infusion of 2,5 g “normal” (fermented in the traditional was) Rooibos tea leaves in 200 ml of boiling water.

After filtering and freeze-drying the infusion, Muller and his team re-dissolved the product into the mouse cells’ nutritional liquid environment. They prepared a fresh batch of this Rooibos-supplemented media every day for nine days, in order to achieve “chronic” exposure of the cells to the tea.

Microscopic and gene expression analyses were then used to determine the effect of Rooibos on the cells: fat accumulation, as well as the expression of key genes involved in adipogenesis (the process whereby fat cells develop), decreased significantly.

“The results suggest that if the active compounds in a regular cup of fermented Rooibos tea was able to reach pre-adipocytes after ingestion, it could curb adipogenesis,” says Muller. But, he cautions that this does not mean Rooibos can prevent or reverse obesity.

“No medication or dietary supplement can replace exercise and a healthy, energy-controlled diet as a treatment for obesity. Our findings merely suggest that Rooibos could help people maintain a healthy weight,” he says.

Muller also made it clear that this preliminary study does not give an indication of how many cups of Rooibos one would need to drink to observe anti-adipogenic effects. “Studies like these give us insights into the effects of Rooibos at a cellular level, and thus about the potential for investigating these effects further in rodents, and eventually in humans.”

Since these early results are positive, research into this area will continue. For example, researchers still need to discover the precise molecular mechanism behind the observed anti-adipogenic effects. They also need to look at which active compounds are absorbed by the body after drinking a cup of tea (bioavailability), in high enough concentrations to exert the positive effects that have been observed in cellular studies.

The study was supported by the South African Rooibos Council, as well as the MRC and ARC.

MEDIA ENQUIRIES

Dr Christo Muller, Medical Research Council
Tel: (021) 938 0894
Email: christo.muller@mrc.ac.za

Rooibos helps protect against skin cancer

People who spend a lot of time in the sun should consider using a skin care product containing rooibos extracts to prevent the development of skin cancer and to delay the onset of malignant tumours.

People who spend a lot of time in the sun should consider using a skin care product containing rooibos extracts to prevent the development of skin cancer and to delay the onset of malignant tumours.

This is one of the findings of a recent study in which normal and cancerous skin cells were analysed to determine how exactly rooibos extracts in skin care products such as soaps, sun creams and lotions help stop the development of skin cancer.

“Lower concentrations of rooibos extracts may be able to prevent the development of skin cancer by stopping the multiplication of cancerous cells and removing these cells by prompting them to commit ‘suicide’,” says Dr Tandeka Magcwebeba, who conducted the study as part of her doctorate in Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University.

“Once the skin has been exposed to the sun’s ultra violet (UV) rays, rooibos extracts will remove precancerous damaged cells and also block the onset of inflammation – the latter being one of the processes that promote the formation of tumours in skin.”

According to Magcwebeba, it is better to use rooibos extracts during the early stages of cancer development when they are more effective in prolonging the progression of cancerous cells into a tumour.

She says one of the major reasons why rooibos extracts are incorporated into skin care products is because “they contain certain natural compounds (polyphenols) which give them their anti-oxidant properties”.​

Magcwebeba adds that these compounds, which are found in most plants, are linked with the prevention of various chronic disorders, including cancer.

She says the presence of these compounds in an extract may also help to predict its activity and may thus serve as a measure of quality control to ensure that rooibos extracts are biologically active before being used in cosmetic products.

Magcwebeba is quick to point out that her study focused on promoting the use of rooibos extracts in an ointment rather than consuming it as a beverage to protect the skin.

“Studies on well-researched skin products have shown that topical application is more effective as the product is easily absorbed when it is directly applied on the skin.”

Her research will provide knowledge towards the development of topical products that would be less invasive and cheaper to prevent cancer development, says Magcwebeba.

“South Africa has one of highest rates of skin cancer, and one of the factors contributing this problem is attributed to non-compliance to prevention strategies and the treatment is reported to be highly invasive, expensive and tends to have a high recurrence rate.”

Magcwebeba mentions that rooibos not only helps to prevent the development of skin cancer but is also used to treat eczema, acne, nappy rash, colic in babies, nausea, heartburn, cramps, hay fever and asthma in folk medicine. It is also known to improve appetite, reduces nervous tension, promotes sleep and boosts the immune system, she adds.

Magcwebeba says she now focuses on how a different plant (Gannabos) can help fight cancer and inflammation, but will definitely go back to rooibos in future.

Dr Tandeka Magcwebeba is currently a postdoctoral fellow in SU’s Department of Biochemistry. She recently spoke about her research at SU’s annual New Voices in Science colloquium held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advance Study (STIAS).

​Photo: Tandeka with one of the apparatuses she used as part of her research.

​Photographer: Justin Alberts