Yerba mate, pronounced "mah-tay," is an herbal tea made from the leaves of a South American plant. You can drink yerba mate hot or cold, much like you would green tea. In fact, yerba mate is very similar to green tea in that it contains caffeine, lots of antioxidants and trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. Yerba mate tea is primarily known for its energy boost, but it may provide other benefits, too.
Yerba mate is made from the dried leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis evergreen bush, which is native to the highlands of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. The leaves are usually dried over a fire, giving yerba mate a mildly smoky flavor in addition to its natural bitterness and astringency. First-time users may want to add some natural sweetener such as honey or stevia to make it go down a little easier, although South Americans typically drink it plain. For many people, it’s a unique, albeit acquired taste. Yerba mate has been used for centuries and is still called the “drink of the gods” by indigenous peoples because of its invigorating qualities and various health benefits.
Yerba mate leaf contains caffeine, which tends to reduce fatigue and sleepiness while increasing mental alertness and clarity. Like green tea, yerba mate contains compounds such as L-theanine that reduce some of the negative side effects of caffeine, such as nervousness, insomnia and the jitters, which makes it a good alternative to coffee or black tea. Contrary to popular belief, caffeine doesn’t actually increase energy levels in the conventional sense, although it increases brain activity. Other compounds in yerba mate leaves, such as theobromine and theophylline, seem to contribute to boosting energy levels and increasing stamina, which is why indigenous South American Indians rely on it during long treks and hard physical labor.
Yerba mate leaves are also rich in antioxidants, compounds able to destroy free radicals and prevent their tissue-damaging tendencies. The most potent antioxidants in yerba mate are called polyphenols, which are linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and enhanced immunity. Yerba mate leaves also contain small amounts of the antioxidant vitamins C and E.
Yerba mate is also similar to green tea in that it promotes weight loss by stimulating metabolism in your thyroid and adrenal glands, which increases the rate of calorie burning. The caffeine in yerba mate is also linked to weight loss because it’s a diuretic that triggers frequent bathroom breaks. However, any weight-loss benefits will be negated if you insist on loading your yerba mate tea with high-calorie cream and sugar.
The potential benefits of yerba mate have taken on near-mythical proportions, with anecdotal claims of curing cancer, diabetes, depression, allergies and more, but research has not been conducted to substantiate or refute any of it yet. As such, drink yerba mate for enjoyment and the way it makes you feel and don’t expect any medical miracles. Due to its caffeine content, which is a little more than black tea, avoid drinking yerba mate near bedtime because it may disrupt your sleep.
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- Human Biochemistry; Charles Dreiling
- Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews; Catherine E. Ulbricht and Ethan M. Basch
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.