Yerba Mate: Does it Cause Cancer?

Yerba Mate: Does it Cause Cancer?

Yerba mate is a famous beverage in several South American countries. It came from a shrub, which is one of the species of holly. Yerba mate was discovered by a small tribal community in South America. With the help of the Jesuits, it became famous as a beverage, with healing or medicinal qualities in the surrounding communities. Since then, yerba mate has crossed continents and has been earning a huge following in several countries worldwide.

Yerba mate is a good source of some vitamins and minerals. Some of its health benefits are in the areas of weight loss and stimulation. It also has antioxidant qualities.

Recent studies, however, are now saying that yerba mate may not be all that good for you. Some scientists, researchers, nutritionists and professors believe that it may be linked to cancer.

Yerba Mate's Link to Cancer

Yerba mate has been linked to higher incidences of oral, oropharyngeal, esophageal, and laryngeal cancers. A clinical review of all of the literature pertaining to studies and trials conducted about yerba mate was done. It was published in the Head and Neck Journal in July 2003. According to their review, there was evidence to suggest that yerba mate is carcinogenic and may have a role in the development of cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and esophagus.

It is difficult to isolate yerba mate's exact role as a carcinogen or a risk factor for cancer. Most of the studies and trials conducted were in South America where subjects are also exposed to tobacco use and alcohol consumption. With the subjects also consuming other cancer-causing substances, it is hard to measure the extent of yerba mate's contribution as a cause of cancer.

Yerba Mate and PAH

PAH or Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons are carcinogens that are present in smoke from tobacco and wood burning stoves or fireplaces. It may also be produced from grilling, charring or smoking food. It is present in some beverages, mostly in teas. PAH are present in green tea.

Most yerba mate are dried through smoke, increasing the amount of PAH in each dried leaf. Studies show that yerba mate contains PAH levels that are way above the amount present in green tea. Traces of carcinogens are not harmful, but if consumed in big amounts, are known to cause damage to the cells. This can eventually increase the risk of cancer. 

Traditional preparation of yerba mate also plays a major role in its carcinogenic qualities. Although not conclusive, it was observed that yerba mate leaves that are steeped in boiling water release more PAH compared to leaves that are only steeped in hot water. The temperature of the water may play a role, but regardless of the temperature the PAH level in yerba mate is still higher that other beverages. The fact that yerba mate is traditionally made by steeping the same leaves over and over may also contribute in the amount of PAH released.

There may be a causal link between cancer and yerba mate. More controlled experiments need to be conducted in order to conclusively say that yerba mate can definitely cause cancer. For now, the best advice is to exercise moderation when consuming yerba mate.