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January 25, 2012
What South America Has Always Known: Mate Tea Kills Cancer

It's a traditional South American infused drink that is the daily beverage of choice for millions of people at social settings, such as family gatherings or with friends. According to a University of Illinois study, it's also a cancer killer. Scientists showed that human colon cancer cells die when they are exposed to the approximate number of bioactive compounds present in one cup of this brew.

Yerba mate tea contains significant levels of polyphenol antioxidants, and has a slightly higher antioxidant capacity than green 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.

Previous studies have also correlated reductions in bad cholesterol and elevations in good cholesterol. A 2007 study from the University of Illinois conducted by de Mejia found that consuming 0.5 liters of yerba mate tea increases activity levels of the enzyme that produces HDL cholesterol, and lowers levels of LDL cholesterol. Study participants drinking mate tea had a 10% increase in the level of cardioprotective enzymes, a precursor to HDL, compared to others drinking milk or coffee.

An in vivo study conducted by the University of Sao Francisco and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2009 found that mice fed high-fat diets for 12 weeks had significant improvements in blood serum levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and glucose after being orally administered a solution of purified water and instant yerba mate tea powder.

"Our studies show that some of the most important antioxidant enzymes in the body are induced by this herbal tea," said de Mejia.

Not only does de Mejia hope to identify the most nutritionally beneficial genotypes of the herbal tea, she hopes that Argentine experience with drying and processing mate will lead to improved extraction of the tea's bioactive compounds. "Food companies are very interested in adding tea extracts to juices, soda, and even beer to increase the nutritional value of their products," she said.

In the in vitro study, 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.

"Put simply, the cancer cell self-destructs because its DNA has been damaged," she said.

The ability to induce apoptosis, or cell death, is a promising tactic for therapeutic interventions in all types of cancer, she said.

de Mejia said they were able to identify the mechanism that led to cell death. Certain CQA derivatives dramatically decreased several markers of inflammation, including NF-kappa-B, which regulates many genes that affect the process through the production of important enzymes. Ultimately cancer cells died with the induction of two specific enzymes, caspase-3 and caspase-8, de Mejia said.

"If we can reduce the activity of NF-kappa-B, the important marker that links inflammation and cancer, we’ll be better able to control the transformation of normal cells to cancer cells," she added.

The results of the study strongly suggest that the caffeine derivatives in mate tea have potential as anti-cancer agents and could also be helpful in other diseases associated with inflammation, she said.

In South America, mate is usually drunk from a dried gourd and consumed through a metal straw. About 50 grams of dry leaves are packed into the gourd and hot water is poured over them; this is repeated many times, with as much as ½ to 1 liter of water. This method of consumption allows tea drinkers to slowly extract the antioxidants and polyphenols before they can be oxidized.

"To duplicate these results with mate teabags, you would need to use four or five teabags instead of one. It's a strong taste, but many people say that coffee has a strong, bitter taste. This is more of a grassy herbal taste. It may be an acquired taste, but I seem to have acquired it," said graduate student Caleb Heck who accompanied de Mejia to Argentina.

Because the colon and its microflora play a major role in the absorption and metabolism of caffeine-related compounds, the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects of mate tea may be most useful in the colon.

"We believe there’s ample evidence to support drinking mate tea for its bioactive benefits, especially if you have reason to be concerned about colon cancer. Mate tea bags are available in health food stores and are increasingly available in large supermarkets," she added.

The scientists have already completed and will soon publish the results of a study that compares the development of colon cancer in rats that drank mate tea as their only source of water with a control group that drank only water.


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