Rooibos tea can’t replace baby formula, experts warn

Mdluli says rooibos tea is one of the causes of malnutrition seen at the hospital. File photo: Independent Media

Mdluli says rooibos tea is one of the causes of malnutrition seen at the hospital. File photo: Independent Media

Published Jul 12, 2019


Ninety-six children were admitted to Tembisa Hospital in Ekurhuleni for severe acute malnutrition last year, reveals hospital spokesperson Nothando Mdluli.

The problem, Mdluli says, is an inadequate diet, which doesn’t support accelerated growth in children under the age of five years old. This involves taking children off breast milk too early and replacing it with overly diluted milk formulas, rooibos tea, and water.

Unsafe substitutes 

Mdluli says rooibos tea is one of the causes of malnutrition seen at the hospital. “Rooibos is given instead of nutritious milk feeds, [which supports the] rapid growth in the first few years of life, especially under three years old.”

Dietician Edna Nkwana says that rooibos tea has no nutritional value. “Guidelines state that mothers should exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months [and thereafter] they can gradually introduce other foods as the child grows.

What we are seeing is that mothers will introduce water and tea in large quantities. These liquids are non-nutritive and lack protein, carbohydrates or fat -nutrients that are vital to a baby’s growth,” Nkwana explains.

She adds that when parents stop feeding their babies breast milk or formula in their first 1 000 days, it negatively impacts their growth.

“Milk contains calcium, which is important for strong bones. [When] affected by a lack of calcium in their diet, stunting occurs, where a child doesn’t grow at a normal rate and never reaches their optimal height,” Nkwana says.


Ntsako Hlengani (28) says she introduced rooibos tea to her daughter when she stopped breastfeeding her at 18 months.

“I bought rooibos for kids because I thought it was suitable for children. I would give my daughter 250ml of tea at least twice a day. She seemed to be enjoying it. I didn’t know that replacing milk with tea might affect her growth.”

The tea for children comes with a warning that it should not be given as a replacement for milk. Yet, mothers seem to be unaware of this. Nkwana says it could be because of socioeconomic conditions, because some mothers depend on government grants.

“They start formula feeding and realise that the price is too high. This causes them to over-dilute the formula, and introduce tea and water to supplement the milk,” Nkwana adds.

Global goals

According to Mdluli, malnutrition is one of the problems that were targeted in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Part of the proposed solution was to educate women on feeding practices and the types of foods that are rich in proteins, energy and micro-nutrients for their babies.

Nkwana says sticking to the WHO guidelines should help to lower levels of malnutrition. “This includes exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding up to at least two years,” Nkwana says. “Complementary feeding should be given after six months and should consist of food with various nutrients.”

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