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Yerba Mate: Friend or Enemy?

Yerba mate tea, like most teas, is known for its health benefits. Teas are generally chock full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, along with being low or no calorie beverages, which is much better than most drinks people choose throughout their day. But studies have shown some surprising links between disease and yerba mate tea in particular. Knowing all the facts about yerba mate tea, like most anything with potential dangers to one’s health, is the best way to be as informed and healthy as possible.

So what is yerba mate tea and what makes it different from other types of teas? Yerba mate tea is made from the Ilex paraguariensis plant (it starts as a shrub and grows into a tree), which is a species of Holly. The plant is grown and cultivated, and for that reason also most commonly drunk, in South America.

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The tea has a smoky, grassy, and woody flavor that can take some getting used to. It is prepared by steeping both the twigs and leaves of the tree in hot water. While some teas can use varying degrees of water temperatures, it is important not to use boiling water with yerba mate tea because the drink will develop a bitter flavor. The tea can also be drunk as an iced or cold tea, sometimes with sweetener or fruit flavoring, which has become popular in bottled form in the United States. Loose tea leaves are beginning to appear in stores outside of South America as the drink becomes more popular.

The traditional way of drinking yerba mate tea is with a metal straw that has a filter on one end (to avoid ingesting any tea leaves) from a hollowed out gourd. If there’s no gourd handy, a mug will do just fine. Some fancier tea lounges in the U.S. actually do use the traditional gourd method, if one is seeking the authentic yerba mate experience.


Health Benefits

Yerba mate tea is full of many things excellent for our health: antioxidants like quercetin, theobromine and theophylline; B vitamins; vitamin C; and minerals like manganese, potassium and zinc. That’s a lot for a cup of tea! Lab tests have also given scientists some promising results. In tests, yerba mate reduced stress on heart and liver cells, protected DNA from damage, and even killed cancerous liver cells in humans. It’s important to note that lab test results are not the same as success in humans, but they are interesting findings.

One of the unique benefits touted about yerba mate tea is the caffeinated feeling that one gets after drinking it. The feeling is said to be similar to coffee and caffeinated teas but without the unpleasant side effects, like crashing and the jitters. Some people say it makes them more awake and alert but still allows them to fall asleep whenever they want to. There are even claims that all of this happens from a caffeine-free tea because of a compound called mateine.

The truth is that yerba mate tea does actually have caffeine in it, and that mateine is basically a synonym for caffeine. There are other compounds in yerba mate tea, however, that may lead to the perks of caffeine without all the side effects. One easy explanation is that yerba mate has about half the amount of caffeine as coffee and about double the caffeine content of black tea. People that just drink tea may notice more of an alert feeling than normal while coffee drinkers may still feel the effects of a decent amount of caffeine but without as many side effects. Another theory is that the theobromine present in yerba mate tea has a smooth, long-lasting stimulant effect on the body. In a nutshell, the theobromine counteracts the caffeine that constricts the muscles in blood vessels with a relaxing effect. This allows for better blood flow and a better joint effect than caffeine or theobromine alone.


Health Dangers

Unfortunately, as with many foods and beverages, there are some potentially negative consequences to drinking yerba mate tea. Nothing has been proven conclusively, but some studies have linked drinking yerba mate tea to certain types of cancer. Cancers of the mouth, bladder, head, neck, esophagus, lungs, pharynx and larynx have all been linked to drinking the tea, though some studies point to weak correlation and some to significant correlation between tea drinking and cancer occurrences. Some of these correlations exist in other hot drinks as well, so it cannot be concluded that yerba mate is at fault. However, there have been many studies that did find a possible link between heavy yerba mate consumption and cancer.

This does sound like a scary prognosis for mate tea drinkers, but it is important to keep a few factors in mind before overreacting or quitting cold turkey. One is that the correlations found were just studies: many are not well designed and may not account for external factors and other causes. Remember that correlation does not prove causation. Secondly, most of the tests were conducted with heavy yerba mate drinkers, mostly in South America, who drink much more tea than most Americans and other areas of the world do.

The best plan of action is simple: moderation. Many things are healthy until taken too far. If you’re is a yerba mate tea drinker, that’s fine. Drink it in moderation. South Americans tend to drink liters of the stuff, and that may be why they show a stronger correlation with cancer. Enjoy a cup or two of yerba mate tea to absorb from the antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral benefits. But maybe think twice before drinking it by the bucket.

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