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What is Yerba Mate?

If you’ve gotten into herbal drinks lately you may have heard the words “yerba mate” thrown around without knowing what it was. There are so many different types of drinks from different corners of the world that it can be difficult to keep them all straight. 

Yerba is a South American plant related to the red-berried holly bush of North America. Yerba mate is a traditional South American beverage brewed by the natives of the Guarani and Tupi communities by steeping the leaves in hot water. Like coffee and tea, yerba mate contains caffeine.  

Along with giving drinkers a caffeine buzz, yerba mate also offers other homeopathic benefits. While not a true tea, yerba mate is becoming quite popular. Keep reading to learn more about this South American beverage and how to drink it. 

Where Does Yerba Mate Come From?

As popular as tea or coffee in other parts of the world, yerba mate has long been known by South American natives as “the drink of the gods”, a beverage believed to combine the benefits of chocolate, coffee, and tea. It grows in areas such as northern Argentina, southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

Centuries later during Western expansion, European settlers called yerba mate “the green gold of the Indios”. In the 16th century, Spanish explorer Juan de Solis noted that the plant was excellent for reducing fatigue, inducing euphoria, and reducing the desire for food. 

Even though yerba is found growing in the wild as a perennial shrub, the demand for yerba mate tea means that there is widespread commercial cultivation too. In Argentina, yerba mate is so popular that five hundred million dollars worth is consumed in the country each year. 

Is Yerba Mate Safe to Drink?

Yerba mate is considered safe to drink for most adults on an intermittent basis. However, there is some limited scientific evidence that ingesting large amounts of yerba mate over time can leave users more susceptible to the following cancers: 

  • Esophagus
  • Mouth
  • Lungs

Drinking yerba mate at high temperatures (temperatures higher than 149F) is associated with a higher risk of cancer development. For yerba mate users who want to drink yerba mate as a daily habit, drinking it at a cooler temperature can reduce the risk of cancer. 

Even though there are some concerns about the overconsumption of yerba mate, there is not enough research done on the drink to consider it dangerous for use. 

South Americans have been drinking large amounts of yerba mate for hundreds of years, and the cancers found in these areas of the world are linked by cancer epidemiologists to lifestyle factors such as tobacco use and obesity rather than overconsumption of yerba. 

Is Yerba Mate Good for You?

Yerba mate offers drinkers many benefits similar to the benefits received from other drinks dosed with caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant of the central nervous system that has the following effects on the human body: 

  • Reduces fatigue: The caffeine in yerba mate is known to increase alertness in individuals and keep their minds sharp even in the wake of physical exhaustion. Yerba mate can also help prevent sleep in people who are forced to deprive themselves of rest.
  • Increases productivity and creativity: Like coffee, drinking yerba mate is associated with sharpened synapses and quicker mental cross-associations. This makes it as popular with intellectuals as it is with athletes.
  • Enhances memory: Caffeine users in studies report a great improvement in explicit memory exercises compared to non-users. 

Even though yerba mate contains caffeine like coffee or tea, it is reported to have fewer negative side effects associated with it compared to other caffeinated drinks. Along with the caffeine it contains, yerba mate also contains the compounds theobromine and theophylline, the same alkaloids that produce stimulant effects in chocolate. 

What Does Yerba Mate Taste Like? 

Yerba mate has a similar taste to other herbal teas and can be said to have a “grassy” flavor that is reminiscent of green tea. For most people, this flavor is somewhat of an acquired taste. Those in South America that grew up drinking yerba mate don’t consider it astringent, but it might seem bitter for people who are used to drinking sweetened coffee or black tea. 

For those who prefer sweetened yerba mate, it is typically sweetened with the following ingredients

  • Sugar
  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Rapadura (cane honey and milk)

Yerba mate drinks are often customized with additional flavorings to help smooth out their grassy base flavor. These include spices like cloves and cinnamon as well as citrus zest or coconut. 

How Is Yerba Mate Traditionally Served?

In South American countries, yerba mate isn’t just a popular refreshment. This drink is used in rituals of friendship and community. Yerba mate is traditionally served family-style, with everyone in the group drinking from the same straw (bombilla). Sharing the yerba mate straw is seen as a sign of close friendship and social acceptance. 

Although it is drunk out of a tea cup or thermos these days, traditionally yerba mate was served out of a hollow gourd. The word mate means “gourd” in Guarani language. 

Choosing a Yerba Mate Tea

Yerba comes in many variations since it is incorporated into yerba mate in different ways depending on what part of South America it’s being consumed in. Yerba for yerba mate is typically packaged in two major ways: leaves with stems and just leaves. 

Yerba that contains the stems and leaves has a smoother and less bitter flavor than yerba which is packaged with the dried leaves only. This means that yerba with the stems included is often recommended for novice yerba mate drinkers compared to the leaf-only varieties. Yerba leaves that are packaged without stems tend to be much stronger in taste and effect. 

Yerba may also come packaged with other herbal additives, such as the following: 

  • Congorosa: Congorosa is a Brazilian tree that has leaves with medicinal properties including antibacterial and antiviral compounds. Congorosa is also reported to have sedative qualities.
  • Alfalfa: As a herbal supplement in teas, alfalfa is associated with anti-inflammatory effects and can be used to help treat the symptoms of menopause.
  • Passionflower: Passionflower is often included in herbal teas to help treat symptoms such as anxiety and insomnia. 

Yerba Mate Blends

Along with straight yerba, many vendors of yerba mate also offer yerba blended with other psychoactive ingredients such as red tea, boldo, and even cannabis. One popular blend of yerba mate is ginger yerba mate since the strong ginger flavor and aroma does a good job of helping to mask the yerba’s grassier notes. 

Fair Trade Yerba Mate

One issue to consider when choosing a brand of yerba to purchase is the issue of fair trade. In 2009, Guayaki became the first company in the world to offer fair trade yerba. This means that the yerba is produced by workers that are guaranteed a living wage and without the use of child labor. 

Since yerba originates from an area of the world where labor practices may not be standardized, people who purchase yerba for drinking should look into their vendors carefully to ensure that the company’s method of cultivation is ethical. 

Organic Yerba Mate

Another thing that consumers purchasing yerba mate may want to watch out for when choosing a yerba mate tea is looking for an organic form of the tea. This guarantees that the plants are not exposed to pesticides or other toxins that could potentially be ingested when the yerba is consumed. 

The Takeaway:  Yerba Mate Is Prized in South American Culture For Good Reason

While not a true tea, yerba mate is increasing in popularity. 

With its customs compared to the ritual trappings of a Japanese tea ceremony, yerba mate is a drink that is prized as much for its strong link with South America’s social culture as it is for its mood-lifting capabilities. 

Whether it’s your first time trying this exotic herbal drink or it’s already a daily habit, yerba mate can help add some perk to anyone’s step. 

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