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Tempest in a Teapot

June 4, 2001 -- Green tea, red tea, black tea -- by this time you may be swimming in tea and news about its purported ability to prevent cancer and heart disease. Now, American tea drinkers browsing the shelves of health food stores are liable to come upon a new one -- Rooibos tea, from South Africa.

"I drink it all day," says Jerry Hemelka, of San Pedro, Calif., who operates a trading company that imports Rooibos around the world. "It's excellent stuff, very mild with an aromatic taste."

Rooibos (pronounced ROY-boss) appears to be matching -- and possibly besting -- the health benefits claimed for other more established teas. A favorite among South Africans for years, the beverage is said by some to have 50% more antioxidants than are found in green tea. Antioxidants are the organic substances believed to scavenge "free radicals," the toxic by-product of natural biological processes that can damage cells and lead to cancer.

According to Hemelka, a long-time resident of South Africa, the tea is made from Aspalathus Linearis, an indigenous shrub that grows only in the mountainous region close to the Cape of Good Hope. Rooibos was discovered by the local inhabitants a long time ago, but commercially traded only since 1904, he tells WebMD.

Already commonplace in Japan, Germany, the Czech Republic, Holland, and England, Rooibos will soon sweep America, he predicts.

"It's totally unique and unknown in the United States," Hemelka says. "The United States could become the biggest market for Rooibos. If it takes off, we won't be able to supply enough to meet the demand."

Hemelka says there may be as many as 20 suppliers of Rooibos to the U.S. and more on the way. "A lot of people want to get on the bandwagon," he says.

Rooibos is sometimes used as substitute for milk with colicky babies, says Alvaro Viljoen, PhD, of the department of pharmacy at the University of the Witwatersrand. And the health benefits of Rooibos are bound to make it a favorite, he says: rich in antioxidants, rich in vitamin C, caffeine-free, and low in tannins, the residue in teas that can sometimes cause digestive problems.

"Rooibos has got all four of the buzzwords," Viljoen tells WebMD. "If you don't capture a market with those attractions, I don't think much else will sell it."

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