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Wall Street Journal Article

Wall Street Journal - South American Tea Is High In Antioxidants
April 10, 2007

Yerba mate tastes bitter, so is it any surprise it's supposed to be good for you? Companies that sell the strong-flavored South American tea say it's full of nutrients that fight disease, provide energy and aid weight loss. Research does show Yerba mate has positive effects on cells in test tubes and animals, but scientists say human studies are needed.

The leaves of a holly shrub called ilex paraguariensis are dried to make Yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay). In South America, it is drunk in gourds with straws, often shared by a group of friends. In the U.S., it's sold in tea bags, leaf tea and cold energy drinks.

Yerba mate is increasingly popular, despite its harsh, grassy taste, because of health claims ranging from cancer-fighting activity to prevention of atherosclerosis. It's purported to have more antioxidants than green tea. Contrary to some marketing claims, scientists say the tea does contain caffeine, though less than coffee.

University of Illinois scientist Elvira de Mejia, who receives no funding from Yerba mate growers or marketers, says studies by her lab and others have found the tea contains more antioxidants than green tea. But the difference is small, and depends on the brand and how you brew it, she adds. Yerba mate contains little or no catechines, the green-tea ingredient linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer.

Yerba mate is far less studied than green tea, but a flurry of scientific research has been published in recent years. In test tubes, it inhibits growth of some kinds of cancer cells, but so far there no proof of cancer-retarding properties in humans.

Several small studies have found it aids weight loss, but scientists say more research is needed. Preliminary work suggests the South American brew may fight atherosclerosis. Scientists at Touro University in California found Yerba mate has more antioxidant power against the cellular reactions that lead to arterial blockages than either red wine or green tea. And, in a study published last year, Brazilian scientists found the tea slowed the progression of arterial plaques in rabbits fed a high-cholesterol diet for two months.

Nutritionists counsel against Yerba mate for pregnant women and diabetics, because of the caffeine, which could harm a fetus and raise blood sugar. Individuals at risk for esophageal cancer, such as smokers and heavy drinkers, might also want to sip cautiously. A published study found a higher incidence of esophageal cancer in Uruguay residents who drank more than four cups of Yerba mate daily compared with those who drunk none.

Yerba mate is generally brewed in a less intense form in the U.S. than in South America. Still, if you don't like the bitter taste, you can soften it with sweeteners or orange peel. Don't add milk, scientists say, because it inhibits absorption of the tea's antioxidants.