I had a feeling that doing a PubMed search for Dr. Annique Theron would not yield much. In fact it yielded zero results. I can’t even find a biography of Dr. Theron, so I have no idea what sort of doctor she is. But she does exist. Pictures of the lady are not hard to find. After all, she founded a company, modestly named Annique, that sells a line of teas and cosmetics based on her “amazing” discovery. That discovery occurred back in 1968 when, according to the company’s promotional material, Theron stumbled on the natural healing powers of South African Rooibos tea. She was struggling to calm down her allergenic baby, and for some reason decided to dope her with a concoction made by steeping the leaves of the Asphalatus linearis plant in hot water. It worked! So she claims anyway. In fact it worked so well that Theron decided to investigate its potential in other conditions and found it to have anti-allergenic properties.
She began to spread the word in a book entitled “Allergies: An Amazing Discovery.” The book appears to be out of print and there is nothing published in the scientific literature by any Annique Theron, so it is hard to know what evidence she had for her amazing discovery. But it wasn’t long before people were attributing all sorts of miraculous effects to Rooibos tea. Not only was it anti-allergenic, it was was anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-aging. Dr. Theron sure saw its potential, and not being anti-profit she founded the “Annique” company that quickly developed an inventory of all sorts of products based on Rooibos tea. There were digestive aids, detox teas, happy teas along with a whole line of cosmetic products.
Truth be told, Rooibos tea was around long before Theron’s supposed discovery. Dutch settlers in South Africa brewed the needle-like leaves as an alternative to expensive tea which had to be imported. It was enjoyed mostly for its sweet taste until Theron put it on the world map with her undocumented discovery. Researchers, wondering if the plant contained any compounds that could substantiate the folkloric stories, began to study its chemistry. And they isolated a number of compounds with biological effects, including some antioxidants such as aspalathin and nothofagin. One substance they did not find was caffeine. Advertisers tout the antioxidant capacity of Rooibos, pointing out that it surpasses that of green tea. This is a laboratory finding that doesn’t have much meaning for consumers. What about all the other research that Rooibos tea boosters tout? Well, if you are interested in whether Rooibos tea prevents the breakdown of red blood cells in Japanese quail, the answer is yes, to a moderate extent. Or if you want to know if it can suppress the age-related accumulation of lipid peroxides in rat brain, you’ll find a slight effect there too. Interested in whether the leaves of the plant contain estrogenic compounds? They do.
The fact is that while academically interesting, such research is marginal in terms of any meaning for humans. And there are no controlled trials showing any benefit for people. The taste, though, may be interesting. The newest incarnation of Rooibos is as so-called “red espresso.” It’s made in an espresso machine using the powdered leaves instead of coffee. This is what the ad for the world’s first tea espresso sounds like: “With its unique combination of health properties, plus delicious taste and style, red espresso revolutionizes the café space by making it something never thought possible: healthy. Loaded with antioxidants and 100% natural. Of course you can say the same for coffee.
Dr. Joe Schwarcz