The impressive health benefits of drinking yerba mate include increased energy and enhanced weight loss. Should you trade your coffee or tea for this traditional South American beverage?
Mate is a traditional South American beverage drink that is brewed from the leaves and stems of the yerba mate plant, a tree that belongs to the holly family. It’s widely consumed in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, where the mate tree is indigenous. You’ll also find mate as an ingredient in energy drinks or in the herbal tea section of your local health food store.
Fun fact: Technically, the word tea only applies to the leaves of the Camilla Sinensis or tea plant. The beverages popularly known as herbal teas are actually tisanes.
Human beings apparently have a universal appetite for stimulants. Depending on where on the globe your ancestors found themselves, they might have enjoyed beverages made from coffee or cacao beans, guarana berries, kola nuts, or tea or yerba mate leaves. Although each contains a slightly different array of active chemicals, all contain caffeine or a closely related molecule with similar stimulant properties.
Health benefits of yerba mate
There are many impressive health benefits attributed to drinking yerba mate (or mate, for short), including
- Greater energy
- Mental focus
- Reduced fatigue
- Weight loss
- Antioxidant activity
- Enhanced sports performance
It might help you go a little longer or move a little faster, but mate will not turn a weekend jogger into an Olympic runner.
But before you get too excited about this new miracle brew, most of the benefits attributed to mate are available from any caffeinated beverage. There’s no question that caffeine stimulates the nervous system, resulting in great alertness and reduced fatigue. The impact of mate on weight and fat loss is likely to be relatively minor—especially compared to the impact of your food and movement choices. Similarly, expect only incremental effects on your athletic performance. It might help you go a little longer or move a little faster, but mate will not turn a weekend jogger into an Olympic runner.
How caffeine affects the body
Caffeine is not addictive in the true sense of the word, but it is habit-forming. If you drink caffeine regularly, your body will become habituated to its effects. You may feel like you can’t wake up in the morning until you’ve had your first cup. If deprived of your regular caffeine fix, you may develop a temporary headache. If you’re trying to quit caffeine, I recommend weaning yourself gradually to minimize any unpleasant side effects.
Long-term caffeine use appears to have neuroprotective effects, reducing the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
On the plus side, regular consumers also habituate to caffeine’s diuretic effects. Contrary to popular lore, drinking caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea is not dehydrating if you drink them regularly. Long-term caffeine use also appears to have neuroprotective effects, reducing the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
RELATED: Is Caffeine Bad for You?
Just like different fruits and vegetables have different nutrient profiles, coffee, tea, mate, and the other stimulant beverages each contain unique phytochemicals that may offer distinct benefits. But the similarities are greater than the differences. You can stick to your favorite caffeine delivery vehicle or play the field.
Or, you may choose to abstain altogether. Many of the antioxidant and other disease-fighting compounds found in coffee, tea, and mate can also be gotten from non-stimulating fruits and vegetables—in particular, apples, berries, grapes, asparagus, garlic, onions, and spinach.
Are there risks to drinking yerba mate?
Mate leaves are traditionally cured over a wood fire, giving it a slightly smoky flavor. This is similar to the process used to create Lapsang Souchong tea. Unfortunately, the smoke also imparts polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), carcinogenic compounds that are present in other smoked foods and grilled meats. Very high consumption of mate (or, for that matter, smoked foods or grilled meats) might increase the risk of cancer due to increased exposure to PAHs.
RELATED: Does Grilled Meat Cause Cancer?
Some studies have linked high consumption of mate (or tea) with increased rates of oral and esophageal cancers, but this may have more to do with the temperature the beverages than with PAH exposure. Drinking very hot liquids of any kind appears to increase the risk of oral and gastric cancers. If you’re one of those people who like your coffee, tea, or mate scalding hot, you might want to start letting them cool off a bit before drinking them.
If you’re one of those people who like your coffee, tea, or mate scalding hot, you might want to start letting them cool off a bit before drinking them.
Excessive caffeine consumption (whether from mate or another source) can lead to unpleasant symptoms like irritability, sleeplessness, or physical jitters. And people’s tolerance for caffeine varies greatly. For some, even a small amount of caffeine creates unpleasant effects. Others can consume quite a bit of caffeine without any problem.
The caffeine content of yerba mate is roughly midway between black tea and coffee, with coffee on the high end. If you’re new to mate or any caffeinated beverage, start with a small amount to see how it affects you, then increase gradually.
How is mate prepared?
You can buy mate pre-made (look near the canned iced tea). Or, you can brew your own. The traditional method is to pour near-boiling water over the leaves and steep for several minutes. The tea is then strained and served hot or cold, with or without the addition of a sweetener.
If you want to get really traditional, you’ll want to brew your mate in a gourd and sip it through a special metal straw with a filter at one end. Mate can also be shared as a ritual of friendship or hospitality. There’s a whole set of rules and manners that go along with that.
What does yerba mate taste like?
Many people would describe yerba mate is an acquired taste. Added sugar or honey can make it more palatable, although this also offsets the healthfulness somewhat. But I bet you didn’t love your first sip of coffee either, especially if you tried it black.
In truth, most traditional stimulant drinks are somewhat bitter due to the various plant alkaloids that give them their special properties. But, given their enduring popularity, the pleasant or useful effects of the caffeine must more than compensate for any initial aversion.