I first tried yerba mate at a specialist tea café a few years ago. One of the café staff recommended it to me as I was looking for a pick-me-up after work.
It certainly did the job, and now that I’ve looked into the science of this ancient herb I understand why. I wasn’t aware of all of the health benefits of yerba mate tea back then but soon learned more as its popularity increased.
As I say over and over again – natural doesn’t always mean safe. That’s why I always do my research when it comes to the newest health trends. There have been many studies involving yerba mate in recent years so information is plentiful. Read on to find out what is yerba mate and what are its health benefits.
What is Yerba Mate?
Yerba mate (pronounced “yer-bah mah-tay”) is a type of tea made from the leaves of the plant Ilex Paraguariensis. The yerba mate plant is a tree that can grow up to 15 feet in height and produces small white flowers and red fruits.
Ilex Paraguariensis is native to the southern regions of South America – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Argentina is the largest producer of yerba mate.
Yerba mate tea leaves are processed before commercial consumption. The fresh leaves are often blanched, dried and aged before packaging. This can destroy some of the components responsible for its health benefits. (source)
The tea is a staple drink amongst the people of South America. It is consumed from a small vessel called a gourd through a metal straw with a filter called a bombilla. (source)
Interest in yerba mate in North America and Europe has grown over the last decade – not due to its flavour (which is similar a smoked version of green tea) but its health benefits.
Publicity has mostly focussed on the association between yerba mate and weight loss. There are also several other benefits which I will elaborate on later.
The History of Yerba Mate
Although yerba mate has only been studied in the lab in the last 2 decades, it has been consumed by indigenous societies for centuries.
Yerba mate was known as “the drink of the gods” by indigenous South Americans who used it as both a recreational and medicinal drink. It was mainly used for its stimulant effects.
Even today, 92% of households in Argentina drink mate tea. It has great cultural importance – sharing a drink from the gourd is a sign of friendship and yerba mate is often part of social events. (source)
Yerba Mate Active Ingredients
Plants are often full of potent chemicals with medicinal properties. This is why they’ve been part of traditional remedies for almost as long as humans have been around.
Yerba mate is no exception. You’ve probably heard of green tea as an antioxidant powerhouse – well, yerba mate can give it a run for its money. Although it contains a different set of compounds, they are equally valuable.
Here’s a quick summary of the most potent chemical families found in yerba mate tea leaves:
Although yerba mate is not as high in flavonoids as black tea, it’s still got a good selection, including quercetin, kaempferol and rutin. The latter is known for its antitumor and antiulcer effects.
Ilex Paraguariensis has the highest antioxidant ability of the whole Ilex species, this is due to its high content of caffeoyl derivatives.
Included in this family are caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid. Chlorogenic acid has been shown to have painkilling, antibacterial, antidiabetic and antitumor activity.
You may not know the term xanthines but you’ve certainly consumed many foods containing them. Included are caffeine, theophylline and theobromine. They are abundant in tea, coffee and chocolate.
This family is mostly known for its stimulant powers but theobromine is also a muscle relaxant associated with good mood.
Yerba mate contains more than 27 different varieties of saponin compounds. They are not found in high concentrations in other teas and contribute to the unique flavour and anti-inflammatory effects of yerba mate.
The main saponins in yerba mate are ursolic acid, oleanolic acid and pomolic acid.
One thing that mate doesn’t contain is catechins. These potent antioxidants earned their fame in green tea. You can drink green tea along with yerba mate though, nobody says you can only drink one type of tea – variety is the spice of life! (sources 1, 2)
Health Benefits of Yerba Mate
1. Appetite Suppressant
Let’s start with yerba mate’s weight loss effects, as this is how it came to be popular in US and European markets. I’m happy to say that there is some truth in it.
Yerba mate has an appetite suppressing effect, both as a result of its caffeine content (a natural appetite suppressant) and by slowing movement of food through your digestive system.
One study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics in 2001 tested the effects of a supplement containing 3 herbs – yerba mate, guarana and damiana.
The supplement was found to decrease gastric emptying time by approximately 20 minutes. This means you feel fuller for longer after meals.
The group receiving the supplement also lost 5kg more than those receiving the placebo and had maintained their weight loss after 12 months. Promising results!
2. Fat Burning
Green tea’s catechins have been proven fat burners, but yerba mate is a close second. Much of the effect is due to its caffeine content but studies also suggest other, unknown mechanisms.
A study tested a yerba mate supplement in 14 healthy males and females. Results showed that the supplement increased fat oxidation during exercise. Researchers suggested that yerba mate may “increase the exercise effectiveness for weight loss and sports performance”.
3. Energy Increase
Many people report that yerba mate tea gives a similar energy boost to drinking coffee without the side effects and subsequent slump.
Mate tea contains approximately 78 mg of caffeine per cup, compared with 85 mg in a cup of coffee. (source) Yerba mate stimulates both the mind and muscles providing a natural solution to fatigue.
4. May Prevent Osteoporosis
One study found that postmenopausal women who drank at least 1 liter of yerba mate tea per day had increased bone mineral density. The difference was about 6-10%.
Researchers suggested that chronic yerba mate consumption may have a protective effect on bone.
On the flipside, caffeine is known to flush calcium from the body into the urine, so proceed with caution.
5. Antioxidant Effect
It has been said that yerba mate’s antioxidant powers are stronger than that of green tea which has long been consumed for its health benefits.
Yerba mate has been shown to inhibit oxidative stress in the liver and heart. (source)
One study measured its protective effect against green tea and red wine. Yerba mate came out on top.
Another study found that yerba mate’s antioxidant effects lasted beyond sustained administration and even altered gene expression. Researchers believe that “regular consumption of mate tea may increase antioxidant defense of the body by multiple mechanisms”.
6. Reduces LDL Cholesterol
Yerba mate may play a role in protecting the heart and circulatory system.
A study in diabetic and pre-diabetic patients found that drinking yerba mate tea three times daily reduced levels of LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is typically known as “bad cholesterol”.
Another study tested yerba mate in patients taking statin drugs for high cholesterol. They drank the tea three times a day for 40 days. LDL cholesterol was reduced by an additional 13% in these patients.
7. Helps Control Blood Sugar
The same study which gave insight into yerba mate’s cholesterol-reducing powers also found that it reduced blood sugar.
Mate tea consumption significantly decreased fasting glucose and HbA(1c) values in diabetic and pre-diabetic patients. This may help slow disease progression and reduce cardiac risk.
8. Mineral Boost
If you take a multivitamin tablet, you don’t have to worry about your mineral intake. However, if you want something more natural, yerba mate is a great source of these inorganic compounds.
The tea contains high concentrations of aluminum, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, nickel, potassium and zinc which are particularly important in human metabolism. (source)
How to Take Yerba Mate
All these health benefits are great, but if it tastes nasty the trend isn’t going to spread, right? Well, some say it’s an acquired taste. Personally, I liked it immediately but I can see how people may find the flavour overly smoky or astringent like green tea.
Yerba Mate Tea
You can buy yerba mate tea in teabags and just make it with boiling water like most other teas. You can also drink it cold or with milk and honey if you prefer.
If the taste is not for you, you’ll be happy to hear it also comes in supplement form. Tablets are usually made from the powdered yerba mate leaf.
Be careful to only choose reputable brands when buying yerba mate tea. It is commonly mixed with other types of tea which impart a bitter taste and decrease the overall quality. (source)
There has been a bit of publicity lately surrounding yerba mate and a cancer risk. Reliable sources have suggested that the link to esophageal cancer is related to any extremely hot beverage rather than yerba mate in particular.
Scalding hot drinks damage the cells in the oesophagus causing them to mutate. It seems the effect doesn’t carry over to cool yerba mate tea. (source)
Research is not conclusive so I recommend like, with everything – drink yerba mate tea in moderation.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the side effects of caffeine – insomnia, restlessness, nausea, high blood pressure and headaches. (source)
Yerba mate contains less caffeine than coffee so if you’re making the switch you’ll probably be fine. However, if you’re used to another variety of tea, start gently as yerba mate contains a double dose.
Most of us know that pregnancy is not the time to be experimenting with new and exotic foods. I’m afraid that rules out yerba mate too.
Studies haven’t proven safety of the tea during pregnancy and we know that caffeine is not good for the developing fetus.
Caffeine crosses the placenta which means that mothers drinking more than 2 cups of coffee or tea a day risk giving their baby caffeine withdrawals.
Caffeine is also linked with miscarriage, premature delivery, and low birth weight. You should also avoid yerba mate if you are breast feeding. Sorry ladies! (source)
As with all medicinal herbs and plants, yerba mate has the potential to interact with your prescription medications or long term health conditions.
In particular, it can slow blood clotting making it a no-no if you take blood thinners. If you have diabetes, it may complicate blood sugar control.
Finally, if you have high blood pressure, anything with caffeine, including yerba mate is a bad idea as it will raise it even higher.If you are worried about interactions with yerba mate, ask your doctor or pharmacist before trying it. (source)
It’s food for thought, isn’t it? Personally, I’m most interested in the evidence that yerba mate tea can help maintain weight loss. I lost a big chunk of weight nearly 10 years ago and maintaining is still an ongoing battle.
I like the smoky taste of the tea and the pots impress my friends (yeah, I got them online, I love how they look!) so it’s a pleasure to make this tea part of my regular routine.
Now that you know what is yerba mate and what are its health benefits, why not give it a try and see for yourself? I’d love to hear how you get on too, leave me a comment with your story.