What Is Hibiscus?
Hibiscus plants give us more than lovely flowers. They make a lovely, bright tea and add a complementary flavor to many recipes. Hibiscus holds an honored place in some Hindu rituals, and some cultures consider it a medicinal plant. In early research, scientists have found some evidence to support its health benefits.
The flowers, leaves, and seeds of the hibiscus are all edible. Most commonly, people use the leaf-like part of the flower that protects the bud as it grows, known as the calyx. A calyx is made up of sepals, the green petal-like structures enclosing the flower bud. The plural form of calyx is calyces.
After hibiscus flowers die, their calyces become big, red, and juicy. Sometimes called roselle fruit or hibiscus fruit, hibiscus calyces are used in sauces, syrups, jellies, and, of course, tea infusions.
What Is Hibiscus Tea?
Hibiscus tea is a fragrant herbal tea made from the dried calyces of the flowers of the Hibiscus sabdariffa plant. Hibiscus sabdariffa is native to Africa and grows in many tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including Thailand, China, and Mexico. This plant is one of many species of shrubs, trees, and flowers in the mallow family.
Hibiscus tea has a fruity, refreshing flavor that many enjoy hot or iced. It has many different names around the world, including sorrel tea, sour tea, agua de Jamaica, bissap, karkade, Sudanese tea, and zobo. Many people drink it because they believe it has health benefits. While research shows that there may be some truth to these claims, there may also be potential risks.
The amount of nutrients in hibiscus depends on which part of the plant is being used, the growing conditions, how it's prepared, and other variables.
Nutrients per Serving
In general, one cup of fresh hibiscus calyces contains:
- Calories: 28
- Protein: 0.5 grams
- Fat: 0 grams
- Carbohydrates: 6.5 grams
They also give you:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
Hibiscus tea contains no caffeine.
Hibiscus and Hibiscus Tea Benefits
Along with some vitamins and minerals, hibiscus contains chemical compounds called phytochemicals that can help prevent disease. A number of studies in both animals and people have examined possible health benefits of hibiscus and hibiscus tea.
Vitamin C and antioxidants
Vitamin C plays many essential roles in the body. These include:
- Tissue growth and repair
- The maintenance of cartilage, bones, and teeth
- Wound healing
- The formation of collagen
- Iron absorption
Vitamin C is also an antioxidant. It can help boost your immune system and may help to prevent cell damage caused by free radicals in the body. This can reduce your risk of developing many significant health complications such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. However, hibiscus should not be considered a replacement for medications for those conditions.
Hibiscus tea contains other antioxidants such as anthocyanins. Anthocyanins give the plant its vibrant color. They may also help prevent many chronic diseases. However, more research is needed to support health claims about antioxidants.
Lowers blood pressure
High blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease. Some studies show that drinking hibiscus tea may help reduce systolic blood pressure levels when compared to a placebo. Other studies show that it may help to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. However, if you take a medication for high blood pressure, check with your doctor before drinking hibiscus tea – it can have negative interactions.
Reduces cholesterol levels
The evidence is mixed on whether hibiscus tea can help with cholesterol levels, another risk factor for heart disease. A review of several recent studies found that hibiscus can lower LDL ("bad" cholesterol) levels when you drink it as a tea or take a capsule of hibiscus extract. But it didn't do much to either raise "good" cholesterol levels or lower triglycerides.
Many of the current studies have been limited to people with certain conditions, and larger studies are needed.
Improves liver health
Hibiscus tea may help with liver health, but studies are limited and have mainly been done on animals.
One study involving people showed that hibiscus extract may improve liver steatosis. That's a buildup of fat in the liver, which increases your risk of liver failure.
Along with anthocyanins, hibiscus tea also contains other antioxidants called polyphenols, which have been shown to have anticancer properties. However, most of the current research involves test tube studies, which are considered preliminary research.
One such study showed that hibiscus extract limits cell growth and reduces the invasiveness of mouth cancer. Other test tube studies show that hibiscus tea may help prevent the spread of skin cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and stomach cancer cells. This does not mean that drinking hibiscus flower infusions will prevent you from getting cancer.
Hibiscus tea may provide antibacterial properties. One test tube study showed that hibiscus extract inhibits E. coli. It may also be effective at fighting other, different bacteria strains. But the current research is limited to test-tube studies, and hibiscus should not be considered a replacement for antibiotics.
Promotes weight loss
Several studies show the potential of hibiscus tea to promote weight loss and prevent obesity. One study showed that hibiscus extract reduced body weight, body fat, and body mass index after 12 weeks. However, the study was quite small and more research is needed.
Hibiscus tea for kidneys
A small number of studies have looked at how hibiscus affects your kidney health. Hibiscus extract showed some benefit to kidney function and relief from symptoms of urinary tract infections. Hibiscus tea was found to act as a diuretic, helping your kidneys remove extra fluid from your body.
Potential Risks of Hibiscus and Hibiscus Tea
While hibiscus tea may provide health benefits, it may also present some risks, some of which are serious. These risks include:
Hibiscus and mallow allergies
If you’re allergic or sensitive to hibiscus flowers (or other plants in the mallow family), you should avoid consuming hibiscus flowers or hibiscus tea.
Hibiscus tea may interact with certain medications. It can decrease the effectiveness of the malaria drug chloroquine. If you take medications for high blood pressure or diabetes, it can cause a significant drop in blood pressure. The plant also contains phytoestrogens (or plant estrogens) that may decrease the effectiveness of birth control medication. Consult your doctor before drinking hibiscus tea if you take any of those medications, or if you take hormones for menopause or gender-affirming therapy.
The phytoestrogens in hibiscus tea may cause complications during pregnancy. For instance, they may trigger preterm labor. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, you may want to avoid hibiscus tea or look for an alternative.
Some research points toward high concentrations of hibiscus extract potentially causing liver damage.
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 you’re preparing your own hibiscus products, use them in small amounts until you're sure that you'll have no negative reactions.
How to Use Hibiscus
You'll get the best flavor and color if you use the fresh calyces, which are sometimes sold as roselle fruit. Dried calyces are more common, and you can order them online or buy them in stores. Sometimes those will be labeled as hibiscus flowers, but they're really hibiscus calyces.
Here are some of the ways that you can enjoy hibiscus:
- Make a sauce similar to cranberry sauce by stewing with sugar.
- Make a jam, jelly, or marmalade.
- Make hibiscus tea, and serve hot or cold.
- Freeze hibiscus tea in ice cube trays and add it to seltzers.
- 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.
How to Make Hibiscus Tea
The instructions for making hibiscus tea vary depending on whether you're using ground calyces or dried whole calyces, and on the quality of your ingredients. In general, with an herbal tisane or infusion, it takes some trial and error to find the strength and flavor you want. A longer steep results in a stronger flavor and color, but over-steeping any tea can increase its bitterness.
For dried, cut hibiscus flowers:
- Use 2 tablespoons per 8-ounce cup.
- Pour boiling water over ground hibiscus.
- Steep for 5 to 7 minutes.
- Strain tea before drinking or storing.
Hibiscus tea is a fruity, refreshing drink enjoyed all over the world. It has no caffeine, but it does contain vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial chemical compounds. It's considered to have medicinal properties, but the clinical research is limited.