A popular South American tea called yerba mate is coming under scrutiny after new research revealed an alarming link between drinking it and several types of cancer, especially lung cancer.
Yerba Mate: The Health Drink That May Not Be So Healthy
Yerba mate is an herbal tea made from the leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis plant. It originated in South America and is commonly consumed in places like Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil.
The tea is touted as having numerous health benefits due to its high antioxidant content. Many claim it can improve mental focus and energy levels without the jittery side effects of coffee. It’s also said to strengthen the immune system, prevent cancer, protect against infections, and reduce inflammation.
However, emerging research is now questioning the safety of drinking yerba mate tea on a regular basis.
Studies Find 60 Times Higher Lung Cancer Risk in Mate Drinkers
In a study conducted in Uruguay and published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, researchers found that daily mate drinkers had a 60 times higher risk of developing lung cancer compared to those who didn’t drink it regularly.
The study included nearly 1,000 adult participants in Uruguay, where mate drinking is very common. After controlling for tobacco use, researchers still found dramatically higher rates of lung cancer diagnosis in those who consumed mate daily.
The Uruguay-based study isn’t the only one to link mate to cancer. A 2012 article in Environmental Science and Technology stated that drinking mate in the traditional way exposes the consumer to carcinogens found in tobacco smoke.
Specifically, the article said drinking the amount of mate contained in one average-sized gourd is equivalent to smoking 100 cigarettes.
Yerba Mate Contains Cancer-Causing Compounds
Researchers believe the cancer risk of yerba mate likely stems from cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are also found in tobacco smoke and grilled meats.
When mate leaves are dried over open flames, PAHs are produced and absorbed by the leaves. Therefore, the traditional drying technique may be problematic.
Experts speculate PAHs are likely the culprits behind mate’s association with higher rates of not just lung cancer, but other types as well.
Mate Linked to Numerous Digestive and Respiratory Cancers
In addition to lung cancer, studies show yerba mate consumption may also increase the risk of head and neck, esophageal, bladder, mouth and prostate cancer.
One large study found heavy mate drinking led to a 2-fold increase in esophageal cancer risk alone. Meanwhile, research published in the journal Head & Neck linked mate to increased risk of head and neck cancers, even among non-smokers.
Unsafe Preparation Methods May Worsen Risks
Not only does yerba mate contain cancer-causing compounds, but the traditional methods for preparing and drinking it may add to the health risks.
Mate is often consumed very hot through a metal straw. This can lead to burns in the esophagus, which are thought to increase vulnerability to carcinogens.
Using certain metals, like nickel, in the straws and mate cups can also contaminate the tea with heavy metals.
Furthermore, the practice of sharing mate gourds and straws among drinkers can facilitate the spread of bacteria and viruses.
Safer Preparation Methods Recommended
Given the sobering cancer links, many health experts recommend being cautious with yerba mate consumption.
For those who wish to keep drinking mate, some safer preparation tips include:
- Letting mate leaves dry without smoke or flame
- Drinking mate at warm instead of boiling temperatures
- Using non-metal straws and filters
- Not sharing mate gourds or straws with others
- Rinsing mate equipment regularly
Drinking mate in moderation is also advised. Consuming 1-2 cups per day is likely safer than drinking it in excess throughout the day.
Bottom Line: Limit Yerba Mate Intake and Use Caution When Preparing
While yerba mate has skyrocketed in popularity for its energizing effects and supposed health perks, numerous studies now link its consumption to higher rates of certain cancers.
Researchers believe cancer-causing compounds called PAHs are likely to blame, especially for increased lung cancer diagnoses. Traditional mate preparation methods involving smoke may also play a role.
For those wishing to keep mate in their routines, experts recommend safer preparation practices as well as moderate consumption. But more research is still needed to understand the full effects of yerba mate on cancer risk.