The hottest new health drink—that might give you cancer

Oh, em, gee: there’s a new health drink in town, and everybody’s drinking it. Alicia Silverstone, Matt Dillon—I’ve even heard Madonna can’t live without it. It’s called Yerba maté, and it’s this totally amazing tea drink that, like, comes from South America or something. It doesn’t taste so great, but it’s supposed to cure cancer and stuff. Seriously!

OK—before you jump on the celebrity bandwagon, consider this: Not only is there no good evidence that Yerba maté cures cancer, there’s some evidence that it might actually cause it, as I explained briefly in Glamour’s July issue. The drink is a hot or cold tea made from the leaves of the herb Ilex paraguariensis, and it has been drunk by South Americans for centuries. But in 1991, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that hot Yerba maté was “probably carcinogenic for humans,” based on findings from a number of case-controlled studies that suggest that South Americans who drink a lot of it are more likely than non-drinkers to have oral, esophageal, lung, kidney and bladder cancer.

It’s possible, of course, that Yerba maté drinkers share other lifestyle factors that put them at an increased cancer risk. It’s also feasible that the temperature of the drink, not the drink itself, has something to do with it—a hot drink can irritate the mouth and esophagus and could, in theory, up cancer risk. A 2000 study published in the International Journal of Cancer compared the drinking habits of people with esophageal cancer to those without and found that regular consumption of hot Yerba maté, hot coffee with milk, and other hot teas were all associated with cancer (black coffee was not). But the risk associated with the maté was the worst: heavy hot maté drinkers were 4.14 times more likely to have esophageal cancer than non-drinkers were, while hot tea drinkers were at 3.73 more likely and hot coffee-with-milk drinkers were only 2.29 times more likely (sorry, I can’t find details on absolute risk).

So while heat may have something to do with it, it’s probably not the whole story. In 2008, researchers at the National Cancer Institute analyzed Ilex paraguariensis leaves for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), known chemical carcinogens found in cigarette smoke, among other things. The researchers found “very high concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs” in both hot and cold infusions made from the leaves. The PAH levels ranged from 536 to 2,906 nanograms per gram (ng/g) of dry leaves, and the concentration of one well-known cancer-causing PAH, benzo[a]pyrene, ranged from 8.03 to 53.3 ng/g. This is amazingly high—as a comparison, one cigarette only contains 3.36 ng to 28.39 of benzo[a]pyrene.

Before you go out and stock up on Yerba maté, then, consider that it might be healthier to smoke a cigarette. I’m kidding, of course—well, kind of—but the moral of the story is, “health” drinks aren’t always healthy, and celebs don’t always know what they’re doing. But I guess we already knew that.

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9 Responses to The hottest new health drink—that might give you cancer

  1. ruben rolon says:

    Oh, we are all suffering cancer in south america! I can´t believe it!!!

  2. Rhys says:

    Ruben, that’s not what the article says and you know it.
    Stop purposefully misinterpreting it.

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  4. Steven says:

    This is why it’s so important to buy organic Yerba that has been processed using good manufacturing practices. There are some US brands with high standards compared to some fairly unregulated South American brands tag are just showing up on the shelf. Be a conscious shopper. There are newer studies that have come out that show some brands of mate have little to no pah’s depending on how they were prepared. Start with organic and you have already eliminated the vast majority of higher pah product then call around or send an email to the companies that interest you and ask them for their results or opinion on the matter. Good luck! I’ve been drinking organic mate for 15 years and It’s the best healthy energizer I know!

  5. Pablo Acuña says:

    I’m from Paraguay (South America). We have 2 drinks based on yerba mate, one is a hot drink called “mate” and the other is a cold drink called “tereré”.
    See how to prepare

    Many people drink mate ALL the days at dawn. And many people (a very high percentage of population) drink tereré specially on summer or hot days (we have a tropical weather).

    The percentage of people with cancer on breasts, prostate, lung or colon is higher to cancer on esophagus, tongue or stomach. The tereré is very popular, smoking it’s not very popular. Then, why no have we a high percentege of esophagus or tongue cancer?

    Read this article:

  6. Laura says:

    To state in the title of the article “that might give you cancer” is an overstate that you should avoid in the future. The excessive use of almost anything would fit the description. The regular consumption of normal amounts (1-2 cups of mate cocido (infused leaves) or 0.5 l of mate in a gourd) doesn’t carry an extra risk and has several benefits. The same applies for coffee, tea, and whatever you may want to substitute mate for. There was a long history of coffee-is-bad-for-you and nowadays the benefits of moderate drinking it are coming to light.

  7. aloctavodia says:

    “The percentage of people with cancer on breasts, prostate, lung or colon is higher to cancer on esophagus, tongue or stomach” Ok, but that prove nothing! there are a lot of factors related to developing cancer. A proper scientific study should compare groups of people with different mate and terere drinking habits. At least a group of heavy mate and terere drinkers and a group of non drinkers. If you take a big group of people you could average-off the effect of other factors. A more complete study could have four groups, only mate, only terere, both, and none. and an even more complete study could take into account other hot drinks.

  8. aloctavodia says:

    Steven it would be very useful if you provided the references those new scientific studies.

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