Cascara Benefits, Side Effects, and Preparations

cascara or coffee cherry tea

Sopone Nawoot/Cascara tea

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Cascara—or coffee cherry tea—has become popular in coffee shops around the country. The word "cascara" means husk or skin in Spanish. Cascara tea is an herbal beverage made from the dried husk of the coffee fruit.

Cascara is widely promoted to provide health benefits. But it is important for consumers to understand that cascara tea is made from a different plant than cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana) that is sold as a dietary supplement. Cascara sagrada is also sometimes consumed as a tea. While coffee cherry tea can be a delicious and healthful beverage, cascara sagrada and cascara sagrada tea may not be safe for all people to consume.

What Is Cascara?

The cascara tea that you consume at your local tea or coffee shop is technically not a tea. Tea comes from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Cascara, on the other hand, comes from the discarded skins of the fruit from a coffee plant.

Coffee cherries are harvested for their beans which are then roasted and sold to make coffee. The pulpy skins remain and can be discarded, composted, or used as fertilizer. But in some areas of the world, the skins are dried and used to make a tisane or herbal tea.

Cascara lattes and cascara teas are known to have a fruity, sweet, raisin-like taste. Some also describe the flavor as reminiscent of hibiscus, cider, peach, cinnamon, or orange zest. Where the fruit is grown and how it is harvested and processed can play a role in how it tastes.

Cascara sagrada, on the other hand, is the dried bark of a tree that grows in North America, usually on the Pacific coast, and in areas including Costa Rica and El Salvador. The product also goes by other names including buckthorn, California buckthorn, or sagrada bark. The dried bark is sometimes used as a flavoring agent and is also used to make medicine and dietary supplements. Cascara sagrada is known to have a laxative effect and is also sometimes consumed as a tea.

According to the National Institutes of Health, Cascara sagrada used to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an over-the-counter treatment for constipation. However, in 2002 concerns about the product led the agency to request that companies selling the product submit evidence that the medication was safe and effective. When companies didn't comply with the request, the FDA published a statement ruling that the medications are no longer generally recognized as safe and effective. Today, you can buy cascara sagrada as a dietary supplement because supplements don't need to meet the same standards that the FDA applies to over the counter medications or drugs.

So how do you know which product you are buying when you buy cascara tea?

It is important to read the label if you are buying a cascara tea to make at home. The two types of cascara tea are made from different ingredients and each has a different effect on the body.

If the product is described as coffee cherry or coffee cherry tea then you are buying a product made from the fruit of the coffee tea. The dietary supplement commonly used as a laxative is generally described as cascara sagrada, cascara bark, cascara dried bark, or sometimes as cascara sagrada tea.

How to Prepare

You can make coffee cherry tea as a hot or cold beverage. Some people also used cascara to make simple syrup as a base for hot or cold beverages or alcoholic drinks.

Making Hot Cascara Tea

  • Place a half an ounce (about 3 tablespoons) of loose dried coffee cherry in a tea strainer. You can also place loose cascara at the bottom of a cup.
  • Pour 8–10 ounces of hot water over the infuser or tea leaves.
  • Let the coffee cherries steep for five to seven minutes.
  • Remove the infuser or strain loose cascara before drinking.

Making Cold Cascara Tea

There are two different ways to brew cold cascara tea. You can either brew it hot using slightly more coffee cherries and a longer steep time. Then let the tea cool, add ice and enjoy. You can also place about 6 tablespoons of dried coffee cherries in 12 ounces of cold water and allow it to steep overnight (about 12-16 hours).

Caffeine Content

Like coffee beans, coffee cherry tea contains caffeine. However, it is reported to contain less caffeine than traditionally brewed coffee. According to one report, even with a longer brew, a cup of hot cascara contains a quarter or less of the caffeine in a cup of black coffee.

Cascara sagrada is not known to contain caffeine.

Health Benefits

Coffee cherry tea contains antioxidants, specifically polyphenols. In fact, some manufacturers claim that cascara contains 50% more antioxidants than cranberries, but independent nutritional data for the tea is lacking so it is hard to document the specific amount. 

Studies suggest that long term consumption of diets rich in plant polyphenols may offer protection against the development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Cascara sagrada may also provide benefits in the treatment of constipation.  There is also some limited evidence supporting its use for bowel prep prior to colonoscopy. However, the research remains limited and not enough evidence has been provided to change the FDA's ruling regarding its safety or effectiveness.

Lastly, some people use cascara sagrada as an herbal weight loss aid, specifically as a laxative to stimulate bowel activity. However, health experts advise caution when using the product for this benefit.

Side Effects

Consuming any beverage with caffeine may produce side effects in some people including an increased heartbeat (tachycardia), palpitations, restlessness, nervousness, problems with sleep, or a headache. Some people may even experience more severe symptoms. However, because the amount of caffeine in coffee cherry tea is lower than in a standard cup of coffee, it is likely to produce these side effects.

Side effects related to the use of cascara sagrada have been widely documented. Some studies suggest that chronic use can lead to cramps or electrolyte balance. Other studies have suggested that medicinal herbs are not safe for those with kidney problems or renal failure.

Health experts advise that cascara sagrada may be unsafe when used for longer than one or two weeks. Long-term use can cause more serious side effects even including heart problems, muscle weakness and other health issues.

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Article Sources

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