Which drink offers the “strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate“? The answer to this riddle is: the traditional South American brew yerba mate. Yerba mate, sometimes called just mate, is made from the dried leaves of an evergreen holly (Ilex paraguariensis) native to South America. Yerba mate literally means “gourd herb” or “herb cup.”
The biggest consumers of mate are the countries of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and especially Uruguay, where it’s consumed in 92 percent of all households. It’s not unusual to see Uruguayans walking down the street drinking yerba mate while carrying a thermos of hot water to refresh their drink.
The cultural significance of yerba mate in these countries cannot be overstated. Yerba mate is as much a part of their culture as coffee drinking is in the United States or tea drinking is in Asia. You might meet friends at Starbucks to chat over a cup of coffee, but the sharing of mate is a considerably more communal affair. South Americans share yerba mate with friends by drinking from the same gourd using the same straw as a sign of friendship and bonding.
It has been called “the drink of the gods” by many indigenous South American cultures and “the green gold of the Indios” by European settlers. Let’s take a look at the many ways this drink lives up to its impressive reputation.
Health Benefits Of Yerba Mate
Much like coffee, yerba mate’s most obvious effects are increases in physical energy, mental clarity, and focus. At 85mg per 8-ounce serving, yerba mate contains somewhat less caffeine than coffee. Unlike coffee, it rarely causes caffeine jitters or interferes with sleep, and is not acid forming. Yerba mate drinkers describe the caffeine boost they get as gentle, clean, calm, and generally not as addictive as coffee.
Besides caffeine, yerba mate contains two related compounds, theobromine and theophylline. These three alkaloids work together to provide unique, mildly stimulating effects. Some athletes use it to enhance physical performance. It’s also good for people suffering from mental or physical fatigue.
But yerba mate is more than just another performance enhancer. It is so nutritionally dense that it’s been said you can almost live on it. It’s loaded with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients such as tannins, flavonols, polyphenols, and amino acids. Some South American governments encourage mothers to give yerba mate to their children, especially in the poorer areas as nutritional insurance, just as we might give our kids a multivitamin. Argentine gauchos (cowboys) call it their “liquid vegetable.”
Dr. Leslie Taylor is an herbalist who has dedicated her life to exploring the healing properties of the medicinal plants of the Amazon rain forest. In her book The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs, she lists the main medicinal uses for yerba mate as an overall and digestive tonic, a weight loss aid, a treatment for allergies, and a general nerve tonic for pain, fatigue, and depression.
Bring yerba mate with you when you travel. It is a great digestive tonic that acts as a natural antibiotic against E. coli (Escherichia coli), one of the most common causes of food poisoning. It’s good for treating constipation, diarrhea, and indigestion, and also destroys intestinal parasites. Yerba mate is high in compounds called saponins that boost the immune system and have natural anti-inflammatory properties.
Yerba mate protects the heart and cardiovascular system, lowers heart rate, normalizes heartbeat irregularities, and relaxes blood vessels to improve blood flow. Yerba mate tea increases bone density, at least in post-menopausal women — a group at high risk for osteoporosis. Post-menopausal yerba mate drinkers have 10 percent greater bone density in their spines than women who don’t partake. Drinking yerba mate shows some promise as a weight loss aid by reducing appetite, increasing energy expenditure, and improving insulin sensitivity.
Yerba mate contains several known anti-cancer compounds and, at least in a test tube, destroys human colon cancer cells. However, there’s some concern that yerba mate might possibly cause some kinds of cancer — especially of the esophagus, lungs, mouth, pharynx and larynx.
The culprit is probably not yerba mate itself but the entire lifestyle of a certain group of yerba mate drinkers. This increased risk is found in rural residents, who also have a penchant for drinking cachaça (sugar cane alcohol) and smoking, while eating a diet low in fruit and high in meat. Furthermore, these populations generally drink their yerba mate scaldingly hot. It’s well known that frequent exposure to very hot liquids increases risk of these kinds of cancers, so placing all the blame on yerba mate itself is probably unfounded.
How To Prepare Yerba Mate
Preparing yerba mate can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. You can easily prepare yerba mate with tea bags or loose tea. One favorite way is to put loose mate in a French press, add hot water, and brew as you would coffee. Parents in mate-drinking countries generally start the children out on tea made from tea bags, which makes the weakest brew. Its taste is generally described as grassy and similar to green tea.
Purists may shudder, but recently yerba mate has become available in bottles and cans that are sweetened and flavored more like soda than traditional mate. You can even buy yerba mate shots that are similar to caffeine-laden energy shots.
But you’ll get the full experience if you prepare it the traditional way. Brewing mate is considered an art form that can be compared to the Japanese tea ceremony. Instead of using a cup, yerba mate is served in a gourd and sipped through a straw called a bombilla. The bombilla is usually made of metal or bamboo and includes a filter that acts as a strainer. Traditional gourds come from the calabash or bottle gourd plant (Lagenaria siceraria) and are often carved quite beautifully. Now you can buy gourds made out of glass, ceramic, or even silicone.
If you want to brew mate in the traditional fashion, the folks at Guayaki, North America’s largest yerba mate distributor, provide these preparation instructions:
1. Fill the mate gourd with loose yerba mate.
2. Gently shake the gourd so that the yerba mate is on one side, leaving an open space on the other side.
3. Insert a bombilla into the center of the gourd.
4. Gently add a little cold, filtered water into the open side to moisten the yerba mate. Tilt the gourd so the yerba mate can absorb the water.
5. Fill the gourd with hot but not boiling water.
6. As you drink, continue to refill with more hot water. The first few sips will be very strong but the flavor will mellow as more water is added.
Traditionally, tomando mate (drinking mate) is a symbol of hospitality. Everyone drinks from the same gourd using the same bombilla to promote a sense of community. You may have even seen pictures in the news of Pope Francis, the first pope from Argentina, sharing yerba mate with his followers.
If you haven’t prepared yerba mate this way before, I highly recommend watching this short video before you get started. It might keep you from burning your mouth, sucking up bits of leaves through your straw, or making tea that’s unacceptably bitter.
Possible Side Effects Of Yerba Mate
Yerba mate contains almost as much caffeine as coffee, so if caffeine contributes to anxiety or other undesirable conditions for you, you may want to avoid mate. And unlike tea and coffee which are readily available in decaf versions, there is no decaf version of yerba mate.
Too much yerba mate when you aren’t used to it can cause loose stools. Yerba mate is not recommended for pregnant women, since low weight, birth defects, premature births, and neonatal withdrawal syndrome have been observed. And keep in mind that if you smoke or drink alcohol heavily, these combined with yerba mate could increase your risk for certain cancers, especially if you drink mate extremely hot.
Yerba mate is already wildly popular in parts of South America and its consumption is skyrocketing in many parts of the world — especially in the United States and throughout the Middle East. With all its many health benefits, it’s easy to see how this up-trending beverage lives up to its reputation as “the drink of the gods.”