What Is Hibiscus?
Hibiscus plants give us more than lovely flowers. They make a lovely, bright tea and a complementary flavor in many recipes. Hibiscus holds an honored place in some Hindu rituals, and some cultures consider it a medicinal plant. In preliminary research, scientists have found it may also have some notable health benefits.
The flowers, leaves, and seeds of the hibiscus are all consumable. 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, also called sorrel tea or “sour tea,” is a fragrant tea made from the dried calyces of the tropical Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers. Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers are native to Africa and grow in many tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including Thailand, China, and Mexico. These flowers are 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. Many people drink it because of its purported health benefits. While research shows that there may be some truth to these claims, there may also be potential risks. More research is required.
The amount of nutrients in hibiscus depends upon which part of the plant being used, type of hibiscus shrub, the growing conditions, and many more variables.
Nutrients per Serving
One 8-ounce serving of hibiscus tea contains:
- Calories: 0
- Protein: 0 grams
- Fat: 0 grams
- Carbohydrates: 0 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Sugar: 0 grams
In general, fresh hibiscus calyces have good amounts of these nutrients:
Hibiscus and Hibiscus Tea Benefits
While hibiscus tea or tisanes may not contain many vitamins or minerals, it does contain vitamin C and other antioxidants, which may provide health benefits.
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.
Lower 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.
Reduce Cholesterol Levels
Some studies show that hibiscus tea may reduce cholesterol levels, which is another risk factor for heart disease. In one study, people who drank hibiscus tea experienced an increase in “good cholesterol” (high-density lipoproteins) and a decrease in “bad cholesterol” (low-density lipoproteins). However, many of the current studies have been limited to individuals with certain conditions and some studies show conflicting results.
Improve Liver Health
Hibiscus tea may help to improve liver health, but studies are limited and some are contradictory. One study using hamsters showed that hibiscus tea may help decrease markers of liver damage.
Another study with human participants showed that hibiscus extract may improve liver steatosis, which could reduce the risk of liver failure.
Along with anthocyanins, hibiscus tea also contains another antioxidant called polyphenols, which have been shown to have anti-cancer 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 prostate cancer cells 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.
Promote 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.
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 if you take any of those medications, or if you take hormones for menopause or as a gender-affirming therapy.
The phytoestrogens in hibiscus tea may cause complications during pregnancy. For instance, they may trigger preterm labor. If you are 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.
Most of the current research on hibiscus tea is limited to animal and test tube studies. More research is needed to fully understand the true benefits and risks the hibiscus flower has to offer.
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 are sure that you will have no negative reactions.
How to Use Hibiscus
You will 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 are really hibiscus 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.
- Make a jam, jelly, or marmalade.
- Make hibiscus tea, and serve hot or cold.
- Freeze hibiscus tea in ice cube trays and add them 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 infusions vary depending on whether you are using ground calyces or dried whole calyces, and on the quality of your ingredients. In general, with an herbal tisane or infusion, there is some trial and error to find the strength and flavor you desire. A longer steep results in a stronger flavor and color, but over-steeping any tea can alter the taste.
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.