Yerba Mate Gourd - ©

Yerba Mate: Good For You? Or Too Good To Be True?

It’s a South American classic that has made some inroads in the rest of the world, but still has a long way to go to achieve a mainstream pour. Advocates say it has a lot in common with Green Tea, but has a lot more to offer. Some say it’s not entirely safe. I think that makes it worthy of further study…

Yerba Mate Sac And Gourd - © worldnomads.comCoarse-chopped, dried Yerba Mate leaves and a simple, unadorned classic drinking gourd.

Yesterday, we sampled the street food of Argentina, and the beverage we chose to represent that country’s traditional quaffs was Yerba Mate – a herbal tea South Americans have been drinking since time immemorial, both as a quencher and a medicinal preparation. Sharp-eyed readers may have noted that I had a lot more to say about it than I did about the other street food classics. Well, there’s still more to say, to give this give this stuff its due…

What is it?

‘Yerbe Mate’ literally means ‘gourd herb’, a reference to the traditional way of consuming it – from a dried calabash gourd (see photo, top of page) through a special straw called a Bombilla, which sieves out the loose tea shreds that remain in the gourd as the drinker imbibes.

It’s a member of the Holly family, which has more than 400 members found around the world. Yerba is native to South America and has been cultivated as a ‘crop’ since Jesuit Missionaries realized, in Spanish Colonial times, that it had commercial potential. Today, Argentina and Paraguay both grow a lot of it, and are the world’s largest exporters.

What does it taste like?

It’s flavour has a lot in common with that of Green Tea – at the base. But it’s a more complex tatse experienxce, as Andrew, at, explains: “The taste of mate can be overwhelming at first, but at the end of the day it is herbal infusion, so you can expect herbal tea-like taste from any kind of yerba mate. In general, mate is more bitter, more pronounced and bolder than green tea or other herbal teas. I also find most yerba mates to be more or less tobaccoey, earthy and naturally sweeter than most of the [conventional] teas.”

On top of that, there are at least half a dozen distinct regional strains available, each with its own flavour accents and balance.

On the whole, folks who’ve adopted the Yerba Mate habit agree it’s an acquired taste.

What’s in it?

In short, all kinds of things that doctors and dieticians are currently billing as beneficial.

There are polyphenols and flavonoids, which are praised as anti-inflamatories as well as protecting against certain cancers and promoting cardio health.

Yerba Mate also contains several xanthine compounds, the most familiar of which are probably caffeine and theobromine. We all know what caffeine is and does. Theobromine is the stimulant in cocoa, which the ancient Myan and Aztek priests used to get their visionary buzz.

And it’s also a good source of potassium, magnesium, and manganese.

Health benefits

In addition to the aforementioned health benefits, Yerba Mate is claimed to:

  • Improve allergy symptoms
  • Reduce the risk of diabetes and high blood sugar
  • Help control cholesterol
  • Act as an appetite suppressant and possible weight loss tool
  • Increase mental energy and focus
  • Elevate mood, and
  • Promote deeper sleep

But there are caveats

No less an authority than the Mayo Clinic cautions against long-term, high-volume consumption of Yerba Mate:

“Yerba mate isn’t likely to pose a risk for healthy adults who occasionally drink it. However, some studies indicate that people who drink large amounts of yerba mate over long periods may be at increased risk of some types of cancer, such as cancer of the mouth, throat and lungs. Drinking very hot yerba mate — 149 F (65 C) or hotter — is associated with a higher risk of cancer than is drinking yerba mate at cooler temperatures.

“One possible explanation is that yerba mate contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known to cause cancer. Tobacco smoke and grilled meat also contain PAHs. More investigation needs to be done into the safety and side effects of yerba mate.”

But… There are folks – devotés – who swear by its benefits and claim it has no serious side effects or dangers. And many of them have been drinking it for years.

The bottom line

On balance, most posts about Yerbe Mate from reputable sources agree that drinking it occasionally poses no problems. And if it turns your crank, flavour- and buzz-wise, go for it.

~ Maggie J.