Hibiscus plants give us more than lovely flowers to grace our gardens. People also use them as food, especially for making beverages. If you have sipped an herbal tea with a reddish color, hibiscus may have been part of the brew. Many cultures consider hibiscus a medicinal plant, and researchers are finding that it may have some health benefits.
The hibiscus family, botanical name Malvaceae, contains many interesting plants, including cotton, okra, and cacao. They have big, showy flowers, and many are used for fiber. The species that is most often used for food or tea is Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as roselle or red sorrel.
The flowers, leaves, and seeds of the hibiscus can all be consumed, but the part that is used most often is the calyx. When a flower is still a bud, it is covered by leaf-like structures called sepals. Collectively the sepals are known as the calyx, plural form calyces.
After hibiscus flowers die, their calyces become big, red, and juicy. In structure they are similar to rosehips, although their shape is more pointy. Sometimes called roselle fruit, hibiscus calyces are used in teas, sauces, syrups, and jellies.
Some evidence points to hibiscus as having anti-cancer and anti-bacterial qualities. This evidence mostly consists of lab studies, but numerous animal and human studies show that hibiscus can improve heart health. Researchers point to anthocyanins as the compounds most responsible for the health benefits of hibiscus. Anthocyanins are plant compounds that act as antioxidants and that give some plants their red, blue, and purple colors.
Hibiscus may provide these health benefits:
Some studies have shown that hibiscus can improve cholesterol levels. In one study, both men and women who took hibiscus extract had lower cholesterol readings at two and four weeks. Another study showed improved readings in patients with diabetes, who often struggle with high cholesterol.
Improvement in Blood Pressure
Hibiscus tea lowered blood pressure in a study of people with mild hypertension. The subjects were not on blood pressure medicine. After drinking hibiscus tea three times a day, both their systolic and diastolic readings were lower.
The nutrients in hibiscus depend upon the part of the plant being used, the variety, the growing conditions, and many more variables. The fresh calyces have good amounts of these nutrients:
Nutrients per Serving
Nutrition for foods made from hibiscus depends upon the recipes. Teas will have no calories and almost no nutritional value. Sweetened teas, syrups, and sauces will have calories and nutrition from the added sugar and other ingredients. Although few people eat hibiscus in its natural form, that's the most accurate way of assessing its nutritional value.
According to the USDA, one cup of hibiscus in its natural form provides these nutritional values:
- Calories: 28
- Protein: .5 gram
- Fat: 0 grams
- Carbohydrates: 6 grams
- Fiber: 0 g
- Sugar: 0 g
Things to Watch Out For
Remember that the hibiscus family contains many species, and not all are suitable for food. The plant that is growing in your yard may not be an edible variety. If preparing your own hibiscus products, use in small amounts until you are sure that you will have no negative reactions.
Hibiscus has a tart taste. Another name for hibiscus tea is sour tea. The sharp flavor of the hibiscus could lead you to use a lot of sugar when cooking with it. That could cause weight gain or problems with blood sugar.
How to Use Hibiscus
You will get the best flavor and color if you use the fresh calyces, sometimes sold as roselle fruit. If you cannot obtain them, you can order the dried ones. In some markets, these will be labeled as flowers, but they are really calyces.
Here are some of the ways that you can enjoy the health benefits of hibiscus:
- Make a sauce similar to cranberry sauce by stewing with sugar
- Use to make a jam, jelly, or marmalade
- Make hibiscus tea, and serve hot or cold
- Create your own tea blends with other ingredients such as lemon or ginger
- Add chopped calyces to fruit salad
- Make a syrup to pour over pancakes or ice cream