Antioxidant-Rich Hibiscus Is Giving These Food and Beverage Brands a Burst of Flower Power
While the flower has long been integrated into food and drinks in the tropical locations where it grows wildly, my mail room is evidence of a recent uptick in interest from wellness brands, which are using the the ingredient in some surprising new ways. Florals for spring isn't often groundbreaking—but this time, it's certainly something to buzz about.
How hibiscus has traditionally been used
Registered dietitian Lonielle Freeman, RD, grew up in the Virgin Islands consuming hibiscus and being aware of its benefits. "My dad is a chef and he's long worked in resorts and hotels all over the Caribbean. Hibiscus is something we've always grown and that he's cooked with," she says. She has such an affinity toward the flower that she named her nutrition practice after it, Hibiscusly Yours.
Freeman says hibiscus's sweet and tart flavor—similar to a cross between pomegranate and cranberry—has made it a popular ingredient in beverages, particularly tea. "I like to buy hibiscus loose to use it to make a tea, combined with ginger, fresh citrus, and a little honey," she says. Freeman says brewing hibiscus tea—which can be enjoyed hot or iced—is the purest way to enjoy its benefits. This is exactly how coffee and tea brand Blk & Bold sells it ($12): as a caffeine-free, loose-leaf tea blend of hibiscus with orange and lemon.
Mawa McQueen, a chef and creator of Mawa's GrainFreeNola, says she grew up enjoying hibiscus as well, in Côte d'Ivoire. "I've been using hibiscus my whole life, including at my restaurant Mawa's Kitchen," she says. "It's the main ingredient in bissap, a juice I grew up drinking in Africa that is popular because of all its awesome health benefits."
McQueen says hibiscus was one of the first ingredients that came to mind when she was formulating her granola line; and, sure enough, the flower plays a starring role in her Tropical Paradise blend ($15). "I wanted to work with healthy ingredients that I was familiar with and knew how to incorporate," she says. "It was a natural fitting ingredient. It's special because not only is it healthy and easy to use in a variety of ways, but it has the power to complement anything." In this case, she paired it with coconut and mango.
Using hibiscus to support the immune system
Hibiscus has long been linked to a healthy immune system—something that has been even more top-of-mind for consumers during the pandemic. (To be ultra clear, hibiscus cannot protect you against COVID-19). "Hibiscus helps the immune system because it's high in antioxidants, particularly polyphenols," Freeman says. "Polyphenols help fight off free radicals [atoms that damage cells], which can cause someone to get sick. Hibiscus also contains vitamin C, another reason why it's beneficial for the immune system."
When looking to create a drink that would help Americans cut down on their sugar intake (and reap the health benefits of doing so), Noah Wunsch turned to hibiscus because of its antioxidant properties and not-too-sweet flavor profile. The result, Ruby, which launched earlier this year, has one ingredient on its label besides water: you guessed it. Wunsch says it was important to him—and the rest of the Ruby team—to avoid using any artificial ingredients at all. Even though hibiscus is naturally sweet, he says it took them 18 months to get the hibiscus-to-water ratio perfect. "During this period, we also experimented with different strains of hibiscus as well as using the whole flower heads versus it in powder form and different brewing methods," he adds.
Other drinks with hibiscus that don't have added sugar include Shaka Mango Hibiscus ($58 for 12) and Spritz Tea Pink Guava ($30 for 12), a sparkling hibiscus tea with dragonfruit and mango. But it's not just drinks that are being formulated to make the most of hibiscus's immune-supporting properties. Enlightened CEO Michael Shoretz says it was this benefit in particular that inspired the brand to use it in their Coconut + Immunity Fruit Infusion ice pops ($85 for a 6-pack).
"To create our botanical immunity blend, we pair hibiscus with elderberry and aloe vera, two ingredients used for thousands of years to support a healthy immune system," Shoretz says. While some not-so health-minded brands may have used an artificially flavored syrup to make the bars, Shortetz and his team were committed to using the real thing. "First, we dry and crush the hibiscus. Then, we incorporate it into the ice pops," he explains.
Herbal blend company Apothekary combines hibiscus with two other immune-supporting ingredients that are generating a lot of buzz right now, chaga and cordyceps mushrooms. (Functional mushrooms are everywhere.) Founder and CEO Shizu Okusa says the brand's You Dew You blend featuring the trio ($12) has been a steady top seller since it came out in 2018. Okusa explains that the antioxidants and vitamin C in hibiscus aren't just beneficial for immune health, it's good for the skin, too. Sold as a powder, she says the blend can be enjoyed as a tea, in smoothies, sprinkled into food, or even mixed with water and used as a face mask.
Hibiscus, queen of the healthified happy hour
Besides being used in foods and drinks crafted to make the most of its immune-supporting properties, hibiscus has become popular in drinks made to help you unwind at the end of the day. In Kin Euphorics High Rhode ($39), it's combined with rhodiola, an adaptogen linked to lower stress levels. Functional beverage company Moment—its tagline is "drink your meditation"—pairs hibiscus with two other popular anxiety-reducing adaptogens, ashwagandha and l-theanine, in its Hibiscus Dragon Fruit drink ($35).
Sunwink also pairs hibiscus with ashwagandha, in its Hibiscus Mint Unwind drink ($48 for 12). The brand's co-founder Jordan Schenck says that the drink was co-created with sexuality educator Ericka Hart. "She liked the idea of an unwind or relaxation blend and hibiscus is a plant that was near and dear to her childhood. She had also been dabbling with ashwagandha personally for its calming effects and found mint to be soothing," Schenck says. She explains that the hibiscus was used for both its flavor and health benefits. "It's usually known to be tart, but when blended with mint, maple, and ashwagandha, it has a refreshing, tangy, and full-mouth flavor," she says.
Herbal wine brand Cale infuses hibiscus in its Hibiscus Pinot Noir ($25, currently available for pre-order) while low-sugar mixer brand Avec leaves the booze up to you with its Hibiscus and Pomegranate mixer ($36). For lower-ABV sipping, you can reach for Luna Bay Booch, a hard kombucha. CEO Bridget Connelly says the brand combined the flower with lavender—there's your relaxation herb—and yerbe mate tea, to make a kombucha with a 6 percent ABV ($16 for a 4-pack). "We steep both the hibiscus and lavender in their dried, whole forms into the kombucha brews," Connelly says, adding that they never use syrups or dyes.
From your morning granola to your evening nightcap, these new products make it possible to enjoy hibiscus at any time of day—and practically any way. What's especially great about every brand highlighted here is that they use actual hibiscus—not a fake syrup. And why wouldn't you? Clearly there's no shortage of what you can do with the flower, which not only tastes sweet but does your body good, too. Florals for spring, indeed—and with any luck, beyond.
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