Hibiscus extract, already used to give colour and flavour to beverages, contains many of the same antioxidant compounds as red wine, including flavonoids, polyphenols and anthocyanins, shown in research to prevent the oxidation of low-lensity lipoproteins (LDL), or 'bad' cholesterol.
It could therefore have important heart health benefits when consumed in food and drink.
"Experiments have shown that compounds extracted from red wine and tea reduces cholesterol and lipid build-up in the arteries of rats. This is the first study to show that Hibiscus extract has the same effect," said new study leader Chau-Jong Wang from the Chung Shan Medical University in the Republic of China.
The study, published online today in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture , tested four groups of rats on different diets; one control, one high cholesterol control, and two high cholesterol diets supplemented with different amounts of Hibiscus sabdariffa extract.
After 12 weeks, blood tests showed that the extract significantly reduced cholesterol content in blood serum and successfully prevented oxidation of low-density lipoproteins. The study also found hibiscus extract could suppress blood lipid levels including triglycerides and total cholesterol significantly.
"These data strongly suggest that the hibiscus extract is potentially applicable to prevent atherosclerosis in humans via its anti-hyperlipidaemic effect and anti-LDL oxidation," write the authors. It may therefore be useful in the prevention of a number of cardiovascular diseases in which cholesterol plays a major role.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of mortality globally, according to the World Health Organisation. Foods designed to help prevent heart disease are growing at an annual compound rate of 7.6 per cent, according to Datamonitor, predicted to reach sales of £145 million (€212m) in 2007 in the UK alone.
Hibiscus sabdariffa is cultivated all over the world, with the biggest producers in Sudan, Egypt, China, India and Thailand. It has previously been used in traditional medicine to treat hypertension and liver disorder, although there is as yet little science to confirm these effects.
The flower extracts are also used to make jams, sauces, herbal teas and increasingly added to soft drinks in various countries across the world.
German company Plantextrakt, which supplies the plant for food uses, said it was not aware of previous research on its cholesterol-lowering properties but its antioxidant potential is well-established.