Yerba mate is suddenly everywhere. From the check-out aisle at Whole Foods to the tea selection at your favorite café, “mate” is taking North America by storm.
A species of holly native to areas in Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil, Ilex paraguariensis, the Latin name for the yerba mate shrub, grows surprisingly tall to about 45 feet (15 meters). The leaves are dried, sold in tea bags or in bulk, and steeped in a similar fashion.
Served hot, cold or as an energy shot, yerba mate is considered to be the new coffee. Fans extol its (allegedly) jitter-free health benefits for weight loss, headaches, depression, and fatigue.
Considered the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, yerba mate is much more popular than coffee or tea in much of South America. Some estimates suggest it is consumed 6 to 1 over coffee-based alternatives in that area of the world.
Even the Pope is a fan of mate, which he apparently drinks every day. He was photographed enjoying it hot from a traditional gourd or “herb cup” (mati in Quechuan, the Native American language spoken primarily in the Andes region) on a goodwill trip to Paraguay.
Yerba Mate Caffeine: A “Clean” Buzz?
Yerba mate definitely contains caffeine and no small amount of it. This is especially true if it is steeped for more than just a couple of minutes. So, if you are looking to cut back on the caffeine, switching to yerba mate from coffee is probably not such a great idea. Black tea contains much less caffeine than yerba mate and green tea even less.
An additional problem with yerba mate is that it does not contain the water soluble amino acid l-theanine. Black, white, oolong, and green tea all contain it. Green tea has the highest amount per serving. This under-appreciated amino acid significantly slows the absorption of the caffeine. In addition, it enhances relaxation while at the same time improving cognition (1).
L-theanine does this by crossing the blood-brain barrier and helping to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine. These are body’s feel good chemicals. This boost can assist with both depression and anxiety in sensitive individuals.
The presence of l-theanine in white, black, green and oolong teas probably explains why people who are sensitive to caffeine and coffee can usually enjoy it, but may still experience problems with yerba mate.
Mate Caffeine Content
Below is the caffeine content of yerba mate, coffee, and tea for comparison purposes. Many people are very surprised to learn how much caffeine yerba mate actually contains.
- Green tea: 25 mg caffeine per cup
- White tea: 28 mg caffeine per cup
- Oolong tea: 37 mg caffeine per cup
- Black tea: 47 mg caffeine per cup
- Matcha: 70 mg caffeine per teaspoon (blended in one cup of hot water)
- Yerba Mate: 80 mg caffeine per cup
- Coffee: 100+ mg caffeine per cup
Therefore, if you are looking for jitter-free caffeine, green or white tea would be the best choice due to lower caffeine content and the presence of l-theanine.
Mate Nutritional Value
While the jitter-free claims of yerba mate advocates are debatable, the nutritional value is not. Yerba mate boasts an impressive list of vitamins, minerals, and beneficial compounds including B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5) and vitamin C; potassium, calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, zinc; and the beneficial plant compounds quercetin, theobromine, and theophylline.
Because of yerba mate’s high antioxidant content, comparisons to green tea, the most widely consumed beverage in the world after water, are common though inaccurate. Elvira de Mejia, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign warns that this claim is also misleading.
Green tea and yerba mate actually have very different antioxidant profiles. Green tea is rich in epigallocatechin gallate compounds, while yerba mate’s main antioxidant is chlorogenic acid. Research hints that both of these groups of plant compounds may be beneficial to health by reducing heart disease and cancer risk, but studies are not conclusive by a long shot.
Benefits of Drinking Yerba Mate
Test tube analysis of yerba mate’s antioxidant components has shown reduced stress on heart and liver cells. Protection of DNA from damage in yeast cells and the destruction of human liver cancer cells have also been demonstrated. Rat studies have shown yerba mate to improve blood flow through the circulatory system with a beneficial reduction in fat accumulation.
K. Simon Yeung, clinical coordinator and research pharmacist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City advised caution when drawing conclusions from these types of studies, however. He says that “high antioxidant content doesn’t always translate into a health benefit. . . . We can’t rely on the consumption of antioxidants as a safe way to prevent cancer”, for example (2). He points to results discovered in lab and animal studies rarely holding up in human clinical trials.
Anecdotally speaking, given that mate has been enjoyed by traditional cultures for centuries, it is likely that there is at least some benefit to drinking it in moderation although this has yet to be firmly established by human studies.
Research on Adverse Effects of Yerba Mate Consumption
Examination of the human studies on yerba mate consumption as of this writing indicates that moderation is indeed the best policy when it comes to drinking yerba regularly. A comprehensive review of all existing studies on yerba mate conducted in 2003 and published in the journal Head and Neck, suggests that people who regularly drink large amounts of yerba mate were at significantly increased risk for cancer of the esophagus, lungs, mouth, pharynx, and larynx (3).
A “large amount” of yerba mate is defined to be as much as a liter or more per day, not unheard of for those who are attempting to break a soda habit. Concentrated shots of yerba mate would potentially carry similar risk at much lower levels of consumption.
Mate Cancer Risk?
In addition, the peer-reviewed journal Pan American Journal of Public Health examined the role of hot mate in increasing the risk of cancer of the esophagus, larynx, and oral cavity, which seems to be supported by several epidemiological studies from a review of all literature published through August 2008 (4). One of these studies from Uruguay and published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention in 2003 found a 300% increased risk of esophageal cancer for the mate drinkers within a group of approximately 800 adults.
More recently, the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention published research from 2008 which found very high levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in processed dry yerba mate leaves and in both hot and cold infusions of mate. The researchers concluded that the results support the hypothesis that the carcinogenicity of mate may be related to its polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) content, including known carcinogens, such as benzo[a]pyrene (5).
Yerba Mate and Kombucha
Hannah Crum, the founder of the company Kombucha Kamp, suggests that yerba mate can be a good choice for brewing the traditional probiotic beverage known as kombucha. The kombucha symbiotic cultures of beneficial bacteria and yeasts (SCOBY) thrive best on a fermentation medium of tea and sugar.
However, Crum says that while plain tea and sugar may be best, advanced brewers should feel free to try brewing kombucha with yerba mate as long as there are multiple cultures available for experimentation purposes (each new batch of kombucha yields an additional culture).
The kombucha fermentation process helps to pre-digest the healthful elements contained in yerba mate rendering them more bioavailable (6). This means that these beneficial properties are easier to absorb and metabolize. In addition, some if not most of the caffeine in yerba is used up during the fermentation process as well which is good news for those who are sensitive.
Yerba Mate: Healthy or Not?
Given that yerba mate has been consumed by traditional South American cultures for centuries, moderate consumption either cold or hot can be safely enjoyed unless a caffeine sensitivity is present. In that case, an occasional batch of kombucha brewed with yerba mate can bestow and increase the bioavailability of mate’s beneficial properties. At the same time, it mitigates the caffeine hit.
However, the scientific literature on yerba mate is very clear. Excessive, regular consumption of mate is not wise. The carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) can potentially and significantly increase the risk of carcinomas of the head and neck region if the habit continues unchecked. Thus, dependence on concentrated forms of the herb made into energy shots and otherwise extreme, routine intake should be avoided.
So enjoy it if you love it. Just be smart about it and consume in moderation or even better, on an occasional basis only.
Yerba Mate Latte
One of the most delicious ways to enjoy this South American herb is as a hot, foamy yerba mate latte. Check out the link for the full recipe containing healthy, whole sweetener and your choice of milk.
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It`s very interesting the information. Here in Ecuador people uses, sell and recommend yerba mate to increase the milk production to nursing mothers. But I have noticed some mothers suffer from the side effects of cafeine, and the baby too.
While I think we should only enjoy everything in moderation you have more of an enjoy it responsibly tone. These studies are incomplete. The reason for the spike in cancer is because the traditional way to dry the leaves is to smoke them. This is the main reason for the carcinogens. Today, most Yerba Mate, at least found in the states are not smoked anymore. Also the way we enjoy tea is far less potent than the people of South America, where they pack a gourd full of it. Of course everyone reacts differently to the compounds but in most cases the Yerba Mate a much better caffeine source than coffee because you do not get the jolt and the crash coffee gives you. Maté is more of a sustained energy. Just my added two cents.
It’s my understanding that the carcinogens in yerba mate are present regardless of how the tea is produced.
Here’s something I found out the hard way. You can definitely overdose on yerba mate. I thought I was drinking a healthy drink, and I drank a lot of it, maybe a couple large cups a day for quite some time. I am a completely healthy guy with NO health issues. But I developed a rapid heart beat (tachycardia), up to 130 beats per minute AT REST when my normal rate was 50. I actually got to the point where I had some chest pain with any type of exertion (but no pain down my arm). I knew I couldn’t have heart disease because of my traditional diet and perfect health otherwise, and I finally suspected the yerba mate. I found the information below and got off the yerba mate, and it took me a full month to completely detoxify from it and get back to normal !!!
>> Xanthine, theophylline and theobromine are three strongly related alkaloids found in Yerba Mate and are the most interesting compounds from a therapeutic standpoint. <> Theophylline toxicity appears to occur at lower serum concentrations after chronic
overmedication than after acute overdose.  In addition, acute overdose
patients are more likely to exhibit hypotension, hypokalemia, and/or metabolic
acidosis than are patients receiving chronic overmedication. Patients suffering
chronic overmedication can develop seizures and serious arrhythmias with serum
concentrations of 28?70 µg/ml. Cardiac arrhythmias include atrial fibrillation
or atrial flutter, multifocal atrial tachycardia, sinus tachycardia, supraventricular
tachycardia (SVT), premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), and other
ventricular arrhythmias with hemodynamic instability. <<
While this article seems dismissive of yerba mate I did try it awhile ago and thoroughly enjoyed it’s similar-to-black-tea flavor. Sure, it’s probably best not to drink it everyday. I always intersperse my tea-drinking with hibiscus, mint, berries, and green tea and back to yerba mate.
I would like to know how much is to much on a daily basis? Thanks
The research doesn’t really suggest an amount that is too much other than being excessive (1 liter or more per day). The tolerance of people to handle carcinogens without problems varies widely, so if cancers of the head/neck run in your family, then perhaps no yerba mate would be best. If you are of South American origin, then perhaps a cup or two a few times a week would be ok. I don’t consider anything that is done on a daily basis to be “in moderation”. I consider it to be a habit and with a drink like yerba mate that has been shown to contribute to carcinomas of the head/neck over long periods of time, I would not be developing a habit with it. Just my two cents 😉 It is really your call on how to interpret the research for your particular situation.
Thanks,think I am going to back off to a few times a week.
That sounds like a wise course of action.
Do you know anything about Red hisbiscus tea. I am starting to see more articles about it. And I am noticing it in the health food stores.
Thanks for this article about Yerba mate. Just started drinking it a little while ago. But very minimally.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
I’ve also noticed it a lot at the health food store. I haven’t looked into it yet, but that is a very good question.
What is your opinion about green tea preventing absorption of folic acid? I heard that years ago and avoided drinking it over the last 6-7 years while pregnant/ nursing. I know green tea has many other benefits so I’d love to hear your opinion. Thanks!
Folic acid is synthetic, so I wouldn’t worry about it being blocked. In fact, I would be avoiding folic acid and it is unfortunately everywhere in fortified foods, prenatals, and multi-vitamins. Folate is the nutrient you are really after. https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/folic-acid-making-us-sick/
Caffeine isn’t such a great idea when pregnant anyway, so avoiding green tea during that time or only having an occasional cup is probably wise.
So I assume that green tea doesn’t block folate then? Folate is actually what I use, but figured it would have the same effect on that that it does on folic acid. Yes, I do avoid all caffeine and mostly drink rooibos tea or turmeric milk when I want something different, but it’s always nice to have a couple extra healthy options to change things up. Thanks for the info!
There’s a potential risk, but if you have a cup only occasionally, I really don’t think there is anything to worry about particularly if you are eating a high folate diet. Note that this research specified synthetic folic acid supplementation and not natural folate: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18551467
Daniel A. Jaimen Navarrete
I learnt about yerba mate -and tried it- many years ago from an Argentinian classmate. What he showed me as the tradititional way of preparation was to immerse it in hot water for a couple of minutes or two, then discard that brew, and add water again before letting it steep for longer. I think that that process must get rid of a lot of caffeine as the caffeine is highly soluble. Perhaps the same applies to other compounds. In short, it is possible to effect a relative selection of compounds by eliminating the most soluble ones first.
A friend of mine started drinking yerba mate (and making kombucha from it) because it does not contain fluoride like green and black tea does. What do you think about fluoride in tea and its health effects? Is it worth trying to avoid?
It’s not an issue if you buy organic tea … it’s the chemical fertilizers that are the problem. Naturally occurring fluoride in healthy soil is a nonissue. Here’s an extensive article I wrote about this: https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/fluoride-in-kombucha-should-you-be-concerned/
Fluoride is present in extremely high levels in the ground waters in the regions where tea grows therefore it affects all tea – white, green, black, the content is higher in black tea simply because it was exposed for a longer period of time and absorbed more of it. And that applies to organic tea. That’s why fluorosis (dental and structural) is a frequent condition in the native population.
Please click over to my article on the subject. It contains data on fluoride testing of organic versus conventional tea.
Strange, the first time I tasted yerba mate, I loved it! I traveled to South America where mate consumption is a social event. For some it is an acquired taste. I did feel a little “eewwh” about sharing a gourd. I never drink coffee since I hate the flavor. Due to the possible carcinogenic properties, I never drink mate too hot, do drink every other day or so, and most frequently, organic and green (unsmoked–no PAHs). I no longer consume green tea, since my favorite was Japanese green. After Fukusima, I am a little spooked. Tea plants are particularly able to absorb and concentrate harmful elements from the soil. I think yerba mate is great. Just wish there wasn’t this carcinogenic cloud.
I would not worry about Fukushima if the yerba mate comes from the Southern hemisphere. Our planet is amazing .. the trade winds and ocean currents between the two hemispheres are nearly 100% separate, so plants and animals from the Southern hemisphere would not experience radiation contamination from this ongoing event that continues to pour radioactive water day after day into the Pacific ocean.
Sarah, I was saying that I no longer drink Japanese green tea. Instead I have substituted yerba mate.
Ok, I get it 🙂 Sorry … reading too fast for my own good!