Butterfly pea flower is Thailand’s buzzy blue ingredient that’s full of antioxidants


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I went to Thailand recently with next to no travel cred, if you know what I mean—my companions had heavily-stamped passports, while my favorite island is Staten. The one exception where I was worldly, though, came in the form of ultra indigo butterfly pea flower tea. While my companions were baffled by this brightly hued drink that we saw on practically every menu, I sipped on mine like, “Wait, you’ve never been to a Met Food?”

Fun fact: I am a capital-S Sucker for colorful beverages, so I’ve long been enjoying it in Honey Drop’s Galaxy Lemonade. But seeing it offered in Thailand massage parlors as a premium spa drink, I knew there had to be something special here. Sure enough, butterfly pea flower or blue hibiscus is the raddest of ingredients.

For one thing, it’s a gorgeous, Georgia O’Keefe-style flower; its scientific name is Clitoria ternatea because it looks like that part of your anatomy. Big win for the matriarchy. And it could come with a side of health benefits. “This is a beautiful plant with a wide range of uses—from agricultural to medicinal, nutritional and otherwise,” says herbalist and holistic health practitioner (and host of Well+Good’s YouTube series Plant Based) Rachelle Robinett. “Which is, frankly, the case with so many plants in the world. Also common is our only beginning to understand and test or study the active compounds in them.” 

Fair. So we did a little bit of investigating to see if butterfly pea flower has bonafide benefits besides being sort of unconventional. Are you curious?

Yes, tell me more about butterfly pea flower and its benefits!

1. It’s filled with anti-inflammatory compounds: Butterfly pea flower makes sense as a refreshing spa beverage because like many other plants, it’s rich in antioxidants, says Robinett. That means it can help your body fight back against the damage caused by free radicals, like inflammation and signs of aging in the skin. It’s particularly rich in anthocyanin, a type of antioxidant also found in blueberries and red wine that is well-known for fighting inflammation and boosting heart health.

2. It could help with cognitive function: Robinett says that butterfly pea flower is a natural nootropic, which means that it can potentially help improve cognitive function. One 2015 review found that butterfly pea flower had potential benefits particularly with boosting learning and memory, although more clinical human trials are needed to make this conclusive.

3. It’s good for your skin: Butterfly pea flower makes sense as a refreshing spa beverage because it has bonafide beauty benefits thanks to all of those antioxidants. In fact, some studies have shown it to be a helpful addition in eye wrinkle treatments and can help reduce redness and irritation, too.

Looking for other beneficial herbs? Robinett reveals some natural collagen-boosters in this episode of Plant Based:



4. It changes color (in a good way): The most intriguing aspect of butterfly pea flower as an ingredient is that it’s subject to change color based on PH balance. Adding something like lemon juice will purple-ify the drink, while playing with other ingredients can zap it red. The bright hue and versatility makes it a great natural food coloring option, Robinett says. “I have to hope we can evolve to using plant compounds as coloring agents rather than chemicals,” she says. “I mean, plants just are unicorn food.”

But wait, you say. Do I have to travel all the way to Thailand to get this stuff? Thankfully, not—butterfly pea flower blossoms are readily available at David’s Tea, and to use them you just have to strain a spoonful for one or two minutes and serve hot or cold. Brooklyn’s The End cafe long shared how to use blue hibiscus in their Gemini Latte. And if you’re looking for an all-natural food coloring, look no further than butterfly pea powder.

It’s a fun ingredient, but if you can’t find it (or if it doesn’t quite appeal to you), don’t sweat—you’re not necessarily missing out on essential health perks. “In the case of butterfly pea, it appears to be a good friend to humankind and worth sipping if you get the opportunity,” Robinett says, adding that the more potent forms may not be a million percent worth pursuing for one specific benefit. But as far as giving our foods an all natural Smurf treatment goes (or just enjoying in your tea), she’s all for it.

Still feeling adventurous? Maybe you should taste test this Blue Hibiscus Swizzle, or if you’re feeling like something a little more desert- fresh, try out cactus juice.

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