Cancer: Popular herbal tea linked to an increased risk – contains ‘known cause’ of cancer

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Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, or nearly one in six deaths. Despite the grim statistics, much can be done to modify the risk of cancer. The dangers posed by eating too much red or processed meat should come as no surprise by now but there are some less obvious risks.

One possible risk factor that should raise a few eyebrows is drinking yerba mate.

Yerba mate is an herbal tea. Commonly known simply as mate, it’s popular in parts of South America.

Yerba mate isn’t likely to pose a risk for healthy adults who occasionally drink it.

“However, some studies indicate that people who drink large amounts of yerba mate over long periods may be at increased risk of some types of cancer, such as cancer of the mouth, throat and lungs,” warns the Mayo Clinic.

According to the health body, drinking very hot yerba mate — 149 F (65 C) or hotter — is associated with a higher risk of cancer than drinking yerba mate at cooler temperatures.

Indeed, a review article published in the BMJ cited research which found drinking “scalding hot” yerba mate was associated with an increased risk of oesophageal cancer.

The research, published in the journal American Association for Cancer Research, was based on two case studies: a 1988 to 2005 Uruguay study and a 1986 to 1992 multinational study in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, including 1,400 cases and 3,229 controls.

The researchers found intensity of drinking yerba mate did not influence cancer risk.

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However, the “strength of association increased with higher maté temperatures”, they found.

The researchers concluded: “Increased understanding of cancer risks with maté consumption enhances the understanding of the public health consequences given its purported health benefits.”

What accounts for this effect?

The Mayo Clinic says: “One possible explanation is that yerba mate contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known to cause cancer.”

Tobacco smoke and grilled meat also contain PAHs.

It’s worth nothing that other studies have found the opposite to be true.

A 2012 study conducted by University of Illinois scientists showed that human colon cancer cells die when they are exposed to the approximate number of bioactive compounds present in one cup of mate tea.

“The caffeine derivatives in mate tea not only induced death in human colon cancer cells, they also reduced important markers of inflammation,” said Elvira de Mejia, a U of I associate professor of food chemistry and food toxicology.

That’s important because inflammation can trigger the steps of cancer progression, she said.

In the study, Professor de Mejia and former graduate student Sirima Puangpraphant isolated, purified, and then treated human colon cancer cells with caffeoylquinic acid (CQA) derivatives from mate tea.

As the scientists increased the CQA concentration, cancer cells died as a result of apoptosis – the process of programmed cell death.

Further research is therefore needed to arrive at a more definitive conclusion about the link between mate tea and cancer.

“If yerba mate is your cup of tea, enjoy it in moderation. But, as always, check with your doctor before trying any herbal product,” advises the Mayo Clinic.

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