Drinking This Popular Beverage Can Triple Your Cancer Risk, Studies Say

Research finds that this drink spikes the likelihood of lung and digestive cancers.

For most people, choosing what to drink throughout the day can be about more than just staying hydrated. Sometimes, we rely on beverages for a morning pick-me-up, an afternoon energy boost, or even as a way to wind down in the evening. But according to new research, there's one popular beverage that could seriously be increasing your risk of developing multiple types of cancer. Read on to see which drink you might want to take a pass on.

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Drinking yerba mate tea can triple your risk of esophageal cancer.

A close up of a couple drinking yerba mate tea

Thanks to its purported health benefits, yerba mate is sought out worldwide as a daily brew. Proponents of the herbal tea say it can help overcome fatigue, assist weight loss, help relieve headaches, and ease depression, but according to the Mayo Clinic, there's "limited evidence" supporting this.

But research has shown there may be adverse effects to drinking the popular herbal beverage. In a meta-analysis published in April of 2019, scientists considered data from ten original studies examining the potential risks of consuming yerba mate tea. One such study from 2008 found that regular consumption of the tea could increase the risk of lung cancer and a variety of digestive cancers, including esophageal cancer, liver cancer, bowel cancer, and stomach cancer, The New York Post reports. Notably, a review of the studies showed that yerba mate could triple the risk of developing esophageal cancer.

"Drinking mate, an infusion of the herb Ilex paraguariensis, is very common in several South American countries, and has been associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer," the researchers wrote. "This increased risk may be attributed to drinking mate very hot, or to mate's potentially carcinogenic contaminants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)."

Other studies have found that yerba mate could contain high levels of the carcinogen.

A young woman drinking a traditional preparation of yerba mate tea

Other research has also established that popular tea could contain harmful carcinogens. A 2012 study found that traditional preparations of yerba mate, which use about 6 ounces of liquid in a cup filled over half full with roasted tea leaves, had exceptionally high levels of the carcinogen when tested.

"These results support previous findings of very high total and carcinogenic PAH concentrations in yerba mate, perhaps contributing to the high incidence of [esophageal squamous cell carcinoma] ESCC in southern South America," the authors wrote. However, they pointed out that commercial preparations of the tea packaged in teabags saw a considerable drop in PAH levels, ultimately concluding that "further careful studies of transfer rates in situations that mimic real-life drinking of mate are recommended."

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Drinking the tea at a very high temperature could also be creating a health risk.

Cropped shot of a woman having a tea break at home

Having a nice, warm mug to hold on to may be one of the most comforting parts of daily tea time. But besides the presence of carcinogens, experts also point out that taking your tea too piping hot could also pose a health risk. "Drinking very hot yerba mate—149 F (65 C) or hotter—is associated with a higher risk of cancer than is drinking yerba mate at cooler temperatures," the Mayo Clinic writes.

However, this risk isn't limited to just yerba mate. Mounting research has shown that drinking tea while it's still too hot significantly increases the risk of esophageal cancer, according to Healthline. Evidence suggests that the scalding effect of black or green tea served between 140 and 149 degrees Fahrenheit can damage the cells that line the throat and make them more susceptible to other cancer-causing substances, including alcohol.

Researchers say that more studies on the link between cancer risk and yerba mate are needed.

A woman sitting at a counter in a cafe drinking a mug of coffee or tea

Ultimately, the authors of the meta-analysis concluded that their findings warranted further research on drinking yerba mate and cancer should be conducted, especially studies that mimic "real life" preparation of the beverage. And other experts caution that drinking the herbal tea at high temperatures still needs further examination.

"There isn't enough evidence to know for sure if drinking very hot yerba or mate tea can cause cancer, although some studies have found an association," Nicola Smith, senior health information manager at Cancer Research U.K., told The Sun. However, she added: "Most hot drinks in the U.K. are typically drunk at lower temperatures, if you let your tea or coffee cool a little before drinking or add milk, there is no need to worry."

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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