Starbucks’ bright pink “Passion” tea is a perennial favorite. It gets most of its beloved flavor from apple and lemongrass infusions (and maybe a bit of artificial sweetener). But that signature magenta coloring? That’s all-natural, and a byproduct of hibiscus tea.
Hibiscus flowers have been dried and brewed into tea in Northern Africa for hundreds of years; it’s even said that Egyptian royalty drank hibiscus tea to stay hydrated in the desert heat. Called jamaica in Mexico, where it’s used to flavor everything from agua fresca to margaritas, hibiscus has worked its way into Chinese, Thai, Mexican, and Sudanese cuisine. And of course, onto the menu at Starbucks.
But there’s more to this flower than flavor. Its health benefits are kind of astounding, and even more incredible? Scientific research has pretty much confirmed all of traditional medicine's uses for hibiscus—even though the active ingredient in the flower is still unknown.
As a folk remedy, hibiscus tea is used to boost circulation and treat swelling and inflammation, respiratory pain, fluid retention, and constipation. In Egypt and Sudan, people drink it to maintain cooler body temperatures and encourage proper hydration and fluid balance, and apply it topically to calm and soothe skin. An Argentinean study on the diuretic effects of the plant found that kidney filtration increased by 48 percent in patients that took a dose of hibiscus, supporting its use in traditional medicine for fluid retention and detoxification.
In Iran, hibiscus has been traditionally used to regulate blood pressure and improve heart health—a claim that’s been backed by modern research. A study from the University of Arizona found that hibiscus had a positive effect on blood lipids and hypertension, lowering blood pressure seven points on average. That’s about as effective as prescription blood pressure medications—pretty impressive for a botanical!
Though research is still limited on the topic, one study from Taiwan suggests hibiscus may help decrease body fat levels, in turn lowering overall cholesterol levels. Combined with its diuretic effect, it could be the perfect drink for those trying to slim down.
And hibiscus may also have mild antibacterial effects—when applied to antibiotic-resistant Salmonella samples, it was more effective at killing bacteria than hydrochloric acid and acetic acid.
With its mild tart, slightly bitter flavor, hibiscus pairs well with cinnamon, lemongrass, citrus, berries, and mint flavors—which explains its popularity in herbal tea blends. (The gorgeous color doesn’t hurt, either. Try it in this Hibiscus Pomegranate Tea recipe from our Food Editor, Merce Muse, or use cooled hibiscus tea in your next berry smoothie for an extra-dramatic hue!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho