Ah, Yerba Mate. A drink that has been around for centuries. An experience that families and friends throughout South America – places like Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Southern Brazil – have shared for centuries. And, unfortunately, a beverage, despite being around for so long, that is largely unknown in the world.
Let’s change that.
Even though when someone hears the words, “Yerba Mate,” they may think of a “weird South American tea,” or nothing at all, the world of Yerba Mate is vast and full of history, myths, health, friendship and more. But, we’ll start with the basics.
Yerba Mate is not tea
While many companies label Yerba Mate as a “South American tea,” it isn’t. The reason most companies, and people, say that it’s tea is that likening something unknown to something more familiar is useful for educational and marketing purposes. Tea’s scientific name is camellia sinensis, and it’s native to Asia. Yerba Mate’s scientific name is ilex paraguariensis and, as the name may suggest, it’s native to South America; “paraguariensis” sounds like “Paraguay,” doesn’t it?
The two plants share some properties, such as the xanthines (stimulants) theophylline and theobromine, which help you breathe better and can give you a slightly euphoric state. And, out of the 196 active chemical compounds in Yerba Mate, 177 of those are shared with Green Tea. However, Yerba Mate surpasses tea in its amount of antioxidants.
Even though one doesn’t equate to the other, both are delicious and enjoyable in their own ways. And, in the same way there are dozens of types of teas, there are also a large variety of types of Yerba Mate, which are influenced by how it’s grown, processed and blended.
Yes, there is a ritual around drinking Yerba Mate (at least, traditionally)
Mate is traditionally consumed with a mate (confusing, but you also call the cup you drink it out of a “Mate”), a bombilla (filtered metal or bamboo straw) and hot water. The mate you drink it out of is historically made out of a hollowed out and dried calabash gourd (sort of like a squash), but can also be made out of wood, glass, clay, silicone or other materials. There’s a whole way of preparing it, too, but we’ll get into that later.
Despite tradition, Yerba Mate is rapidly evolving in terms of how it’s consumed today. Due to how healthy it is, beverage companies have created energy shots, workout bars, powders, pills, sodas, juices and more with Yerba Mate, which is fine.
Science needs to study Yerba Mate more
Before jumping into a high-level overview of Yerba Mate’s health benefits, it’s important for you to know that some people claim drinking large amounts of Yerba Mate may cause throat cancer. A study from 2009 found evidence between esophageal cancer and drinking hot Yerba Mate, but they were inconclusive. One reason being that esophageal cancer could be caused by drinking Mate (or anything) at hot temperatures.
Another study found that hot and cold Yerba Mate contained a high amount of cancer-causing agents, but said that it could be due to the way it’s processed, which often involves smoke-drying the Mate. Unsurprisingly, smoke-dried meats were also found with large amounts of cancer-causing agents. So, the Mate industry’s answer to these concerns was to produce unsmoked Yerba Mate, which is available for purchase from a handful of companies, like this one (use the code “mateo10” for 10% off your entire purchase).
Drinking Yerba Mate is healthy for you
Yerba Mate itself contains an overwhelming amount of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and more that benefit your health in an almost endless amount of ways.
Xanthines. Xanthines are stimulants. For example, caffeine is a xanthine, and Mate contains caffeine (which people sometimes call “mateine”), theophylline, which is in inhalers and helps you breathe better, and theobromine, which is found in chocolate and gives you a happy and euphoric feeling.
Polyphenols. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant, and Yerba Mate has 11 different kinds of them. Now, a quick lesson. An antioxidant is a molecule capable of inhibiting the oxidation of other molecules. This is good because oxidation can produce what’re known as free radicals, and they can start chain reactions in cells that either kill or damage them. Antioxidants prevent these chain reactions from taking place.
Low-density Lipoproteins (LDL). Lipoproteins are a combination of cholesterol and a protein that circulate through the body and carry cholesterol from the liver and small intestine to other tissues and cells in the body that need it. You have LDLs and HDLs (high-density), but LDLs are bad cholesterol, and when oxidized they can produce inflammation in your arteries that supply blood to your organs and other tissues, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. So, all of the antioxidants that Yerba Mate is packed with help inhibit LDL production.
Saponins. Saponins are chemical compounds that are often plant-derived. Like the polyphenols, saponins are bitter (hence bitter taste of Yerba Mate). They also have a soapy character, which may account for the soapy film at the top of the Mate after water is poured in! The root of the plant where the chemical compound was initially derived from served as a type of soap for Native American tribes in California. According to Dr. Ray Sahelian, saponins affect the immune system in ways that help to protect the human body against cancers, and also lower cholesterol levels.
Vitamins. Yerba Mate contains vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, Niacin (B3), B5, B Complex, Calcium, Manganese, Iron, Selenium, Potassium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Zinc, and Carotene, Fatty Acids, Chlorophyll, Flavonols. We all know that many vitamins and minerals are good for you. Visit here for definitions of all of these vitamins and minerals.
The list goes on and on, but, for the sake of brevity, we’ll stop here.
Yerba Mate isn’t anything new
The history of Yerba Mate is long and extensive, full of gods, jaguars, warriors and more. The Guaraní people, who were the first to consume Mate, claimed that the Goddesses of the Moon and the Cloud came to Earth to visit, but found a jaguar that was going to harm them. A man rescued them, and the Goddesses gave the man a plant, which he could use to make a drink. This drink would be a “drink of friendship” and, you guessed it, the plant was Yerba Mate.
In terms of when humans first started to drink Mate, that is largely unknown. Yerba Mate was found in a Quechua tomb near Lima, Peru, which makes people think that it was associated with royalty and status. The earliest records of Yerba Mate day to the mid-1500s, when the Spaniards came to colonize the lands of the Guaraní people.
As time went on, Europeans became more familiar with Yerba Mate, and integrated it into their own colonial, South American lifestyles. And, even though majority of the world still isn’t familiar with Yerba Mate, it is consumed in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Poland and, for the past decade, has started to make its way in a variety of forms to the United States and other parts of Europe.
So, even though you may see a Yerba Mate energy shot, fizzy soda or bottled drink at Trader Joe’s, know that what you’re consuming is part of a long history.
You can drink Yerba Mate alone, or with a group
Well, you can do whatever you want. But, per tradition, Yerba Mate is a communal drink. “The drink of friendship,” remember? People in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Southern Brazil regularly come together to sit with family and friends and share Mate and good conversation. People often say it’s the opposite of watching television. Instead of mindlessly staring at a screen, family and friends sit in a circle, pass a mate around and chat, laugh and get to know each other better. Strangers are always welcome.
But, drinking Yerba Mate is enough of a staple in many people’s lives whereby they drink it every day, all day regardless of if they’re with others, or not. If you head to Argentina or Uruguay, and decided to hold your breath until you saw someone drinking Yerba Mate, or carrying a thermos of hot water, you likely wouldn’t even get a full breath it; it’s everywhere, and as commonplace as McDonald’s is in the United State. Students use it to study, doctors drink it before work, housewives and husbands drink it at home and everyone in between enjoys it.
How to prepare Yerba Mate (traditionally)
Today, Yerba Mate is prepared in a variety of ways, including in tea bags, french presses and more. But, nothing beats the traditional way, so below is a quick, 30-second crash course in how to prepare your Yerba Mate with a mate (gourd), bombilla, Yerba Mate (the loose leaves) and water.
Quick 30-second crash course:
- Grab your gourd, and fill up two-thirds of it with some loose-leaf Yerba Mate
- Cover the entire top of the gourd, and give it 2-3 good shakes to get the polvo (powder or dust) out. It can clog up your bombilla
- Do your best to make a half-moon of Yerba Mate sitting on the bottom of the mouth of the gourd (if you’re holding it to the side, or slightly angled) and free space at the top
- Pour a small amount of cold water over the leaves, to help protect the nutrients from the hot water you’re going to pour in
- Insert the bombilla, and lay it flat over the leaves
- Pour in hot water to the top, but if you have a mountain of dry leaves to the side (from the half moon of dry leaves from before), avoid getting that wet, so you can use it to strengthen your Mate later
- Drink until you hear slurping noises
- Refill, pass to a friend, enjoy
Note: Typically, only one person prepares the mate and passes it around to others. This person is known as the cebador, or “server.” Also, don’t ever touch the bombilla (filtered straw); it’s a major faux pas and can cause it to clog.
Now, you’re a Yerba Mate professional. The only thing left to do is go out there and grab yourself a Yerba Mate kit (gourd, bombilla, loose-leaf Yerba Mate), find some friends and start to experience the beauty that is Yerba Mate.
If you have any comments or questions, please don’t be shy and leave them below. The more the merrier.
And, if you’re looking to grab some Yerba Mate, head to Yerba Mate Land and use the code “mateo10” for 10% off your entire order. Or, head to Circle of Drink and get yourself a gourd / bombilla using the same discount code.