In the United Kingdom and United States, yerba mate is a coffee alternative consumed for its stimulant effects; in many South American countries, it is the national drink, as popular as black tea in the UK or coffee in the US.
Uruguayans are particularly obsessed with this drink and it is said to be a favourite with Barcelona forward and Uruguay international Luis Suarez, who can be seen sipping mate through a traditional straw prior to every Barcelona game. The question is, does he know something we don’t? Is this as healthy as your local health food store would have you believe? And should we be replacing our morning tea or coffee with a yerba mate?
What is Yerba Mate?
Yerba mate is a traditional South American drink made from the dried leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, which is in the holly family. It is mainly produced in Argentina and Brazil, before the bulk of the harvest is shipped across South America, with the rest being sent everywhere from the United States to the Middle East.
Per capita, Uruguay is one of the biggest consumers, but it’s also enjoyed freely throughout Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, and Paraguay, the latter of which also produces a large quantity of the tea.
How to Drink Yerba Mate
The traditional mate vessel is a gourd. This is filled about half or three-quarters of the way with dried leaves and then hot water is added. A metal straw, known as a bombilla or bomba, is then used to drink the liquid.
The leaves remain in the drink at all times, with the straw making sure that none of the dried leaves get sucked up. The water can be topped up several times, with the leaves retaining enough flavour to allow them to be infused time after time.
What are the Health Benefits?
Yerba mate seems to be a healthy drink. It contains an array of phytonutrients and has a very impressive nutrient composition. There have also been a number of studies pointing toward potential health benefits, but while there are some exciting studies out there and some genuine claims regarding the health benefits, there are also some claims that have no basis in truth and have seemingly been made with the sole intent of increasing sales.
Mate, just like coffee, may help with weight loss. It all comes down to the caffeine content, as this stimulant may be able to increase energy expenditure slightly (1), which means you burn more calories over the course of the day.
However, unless you are using caffeine/yerba mate as an exercise aid (caffeine may also improve exercise performance (2)) then it is unlikely to have much of an impact.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that yerba mate can improve digestion, treat the symptoms of IBS, help with arthritis, and boost the immune system. Not many human studies out there—if any—back up these claims, but yerba mate certainly has a lot of antioxidants, which may support the immune system; it contains xanthines, which could help relieve constipation and hasten gut motility; and the side effects are minimal.
If you believe it works for you, and it’s safe for you to consume, then keep drinking it.
Yerba Mate versus Coffee as a Stimulant
Yerba mate is often consumed as a substitute for coffee, with many users reporting that they still feel stimulated and focused, but that they don’t feel any of the jittery sensations associated with the coffee “high”.
Some advocates even claim that this is because yerba mate contains a different kind of stimulant, one that doesn’t react with the body’s central nervous system in the same way that caffeine does. But yerba mate does contain caffeine, anywhere from 35 mg to 85 mg per cup, in fact, and there is no concrete evidence to prove that it is able to provide a “cleaner” energy boost than coffee. (3)
That’s not to say that these consumers are wrong, but that no one has been able to find concrete evidence to prove they are right. The fact that yerba mate has a higher nutrient composition than coffee and contains theobromine, which is also present in chocolate and could contribute to the positive effects of chocolate, suggests that there might be something in this, but neither yerba mate or theobromine have undergone enough studies to confirm or deny this with any degree of certainty. (4)
Can Yerba Mate Cause Anxiety?
Yerba mate is often sold as a healthier alternative to coffee, which leads some customers to assume that it is naturally caffeine free. This simply isn’t the case, as discussed above, and if you are sensitive to caffeine then you should avoid yerba mate.
High levels of caffeine can lead to side effects associated with anxiety, including restlessness, nervousness, agitation, and insomnia. These are pronounced in people who consume large amounts or have a low tolerance for caffeine.
Can Yerba Mate Cause Cancer?
There are studies that have found associations between mate consumption and an increase in oesophageal cancer. Anything that connects a seemingly harmless “health food” to an increase in cancer is worrying, but in this case it’s important to note that this correlation was more likely the result of scalding hot tea consumption as opposed to anything in the tea itself. (5)
In fact, research conducted on Chinese tea drinkers has found a direct link between regular consumption of hot tea and an increased risk of aerodigestive tract cancers. To reduce this, use water off-the-boil. If you wouldn't want it touching your skin, you shouldn't be pouring it down your throat in large quantities.
What Does Yerba Mate Taste Like?
The taste of yerba mate can differ considerably depending on the variety and the quality, as discussed in more detail below. It is an acquired taste, but not necessarily a terrible one. It is a little more earthy than green tea, it doesn't have the sweetness of red tea, and there is a woody, burnt flavor. But like everything, it all comes down to personal taste. We've heard it described as a cross between wet grass and burnt wood, but we've also heard it described as akin to a fine wine, with flavours of citrus, honey and dark chocolate.
If you're not a big fan of the flavour, try adding some other herbs, such as a pinch of digestion-boosting peppermint leaves, or even a little echinacea, which has many immune-boosting benefits. They may make the flavour more suited to your palate, and they'll also add some additional benefits.
How to Get Yerba Mate in the UK
You don’t need to look very hard to find a supplier of yerba mate in the UK but very few of these sell mate the way it should it sold. We’re not just talking about the gourd and the bombilla. This is certainly an interesting way to drink it and it’s something we would recommend but it can just as easily be consumed in any old mug you have at home. The issue with many UK sellers is that they add low-quality mate to teabags, often in combination with other herbs.
These bags are often added to cups of boiling water and several spoonfuls of sugar, producing a drink that simply doesn’t have the strength or the depth of flavour that a good mate should possess. To truly experience this drink, you need to experiment with the loose leaves, even if you’re only using small amounts.
You can find these in loose tea shops and general health food shops online, many of which also sell gift sets that include traditional drinking implements.