What is Yerba Mate?
Yerba maté, Ilex paraguariensis, is a popular South American herbal tea that outrivals even green tea in its antioxidant content. The tea is commonly produced and consumed in the countries of Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Traditionally, yerba mate has been shared from a gourd as a symbol of friendship and bonding and is commonly sipped through a filtered straw.
Yerba mate was consumed by the Guarani indigenous people long before the Spaniards conquered South America. The Guarani name for yerba mate is ka’a which means “a plant” or “herb.” To make mate, the leaves of the plant are dried out over a fire and then steeped in hot water. When served cold, it is called tereré in the Guarani language. The tea is now consumed by more than a million people worldwide.
Health Benefits of Yerba Mate
Yerba mate contains trace amounts of every vitamin and mineral your body requires, as well as seven out of ten essential amino acids. It will also give you an energy boost with its 85 milligrams of caffeine per cup. This is almost double the amount of caffeine found in black tea but less than half that of coffee (100 to more than 200 mg per cup). As a bonus, many yerba mate drinkers say it increases alertness and energy like coffee, but it doesn’t have the same jittery effect.
Yerba mate contains an array of beneficial compounds including the following:
- Caffeoyl derivatives: The main health-boosting antioxidants in yerba mate.
- Xanthines: Stimulating compounds including caffeine and theobromine, which are also found in tea, coffee and chocolate.
- Saponins: Bitter compounds with anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties.
- Polyphenols: This is a large group of antioxidants, tied to a reduced risk of many diseases.
Yerba mate has been shown to have antimicrobial properties. In one test-tube study, researchers found that a high dose of yerba mate extract reduced E. coli, a bacteria that can cause food poisoning symptoms. The researchers concluded that “extracts from commercial yerba mate have potential to be used as antimicrobials in foods and beverages against pathogenic E. coli…”
A Social Drink
In a recent study, published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers analyzed the role of yerba mate and medicinal plants in the treatment of illnesses within Paraguayan folk medicine. The study was conducted among 100 Paraguayan migrants living in Misiones, Argentina. This included 61 women (aged between 30 and 95) and 39 men (aged between 28 and 90).
In their introduction, the authors review previous evidence on yerba mate’s health benefits. They write, “Research on extracts and isolated compounds from yerba mate has provided a number of pharmacological applications. Studies have demonstrated that yerba mate leaves have antioxidant, antiobesity, antidiabetic, digestive improvement and cardiovascular properties, and chemopreventative ones (preventing cellular damage that may cause chronic diseases).”
“The consumption of yerba mate infusion reduces LDL-cholesterol in parallel with an increase in HDL-cholesterol, as observed in studies on humans. Yerba mate extract also reduces acute lung inflammation, as observed in the animal model. Antimicrobial activity of Ilex paraguariensis has been recently studied as well.”
Regarding the social aspects of drinking yerba mate, the authors write, “Drinking yerba mate is social behaviour par excellence. People avoid drinking mate or tereré on their own. The afternoon mate, especially, is shared with family, neighbours, friends, and other visitors. Sometimes the addition of medicinal plants is negotiated among the participants, and in other situations the invited persons ingest the plants which the host is currently drinking with his/her yerba mate.”
Weight Loss Benefits of Yerba Mate
Some studies suggest that yerba mate may help with weight loss by reducing appetite and boosting metabolism. The tea also appears to reduce the total number of fat cells as well as the amount of fat they can hold.
In one 12-week study, researchers evaluated the effectiveness and safety of yerba mate supplementation in Korean subjects with obesity. According to the findings, subjects who consumed 3 grams of yerba mate powder per day lost an average of 1.5 pounds and reduced their waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) by 2%. In contrast, participants who were given a placebo gained an average of 6.2 lbs and increased their waist-to-hip ratio by 1% during the same time period.
In conclusion, the research article states “Yerba Mate supplementation decreased body fat mass, percent body fat and WHR. Yerba Mate was a potent anti-obesity reagent that did not produce significant adverse effects. These results suggested that Yerba Mate supplementation may be effective for treating obese individuals.”
Preparing Yerba Mate
Yerba mate can be served hot or cold and flavored with honey, sugar, lemon and/or milk.
If you want to go the traditional route, purchase a hollowed-out yerba mate drinking gourd and fill it up to three-quarters full with dry leaves (and twigs). Then add hot water (not boiling) and let steep. You can also purchase a metal filtered straw so you can easily sip it without getting leaves in your teeth. The tea may also be prepared with cold water, in which case it is known as tereré.
If you don’t have a gourd, you can conveniently make yerba mate with a French press. Place about 2 tablespoons of yerba mate leaves into the French press and cover with about 16 ounces of hot water. Brew to desired strength and then press the lever all the way down to filter the leaves.
The yerba mate plant is an evergreen tree grown and processed in its native regions of northern Argentina (Corrientes and Misiones), Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. It’s a member of the Holly family and can grow up to ten meters tall.
Seeds used to sprout new plants are harvested after they have turned a dark purple color, typically between January and April. The harvested seeds are submerged in water in order to filter out any floating non-viable seeds and unwanted pieces like twigs and leaves. Seeds are planted between March and May.
When yerba mate is harvested, the branches are typically dried by a wood fire, giving the leaves a smoky flavor. The strength of the flavor, caffeine levels, and other nutrients can vary depending on whether it is a male or female plant. Female plants, which are less common, are often milder in flavor and lower in caffeine.