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Why is Everybody Drinking Yerba Mate?

The Yerba Mate Sensation - Join it!

I have noticed a growing trend amongst friends in Australia and the USA where Yerba Mate is considered to be a bit of an edgy “it” drink.  I have no issue with this because it sure beats a can of Red-noxious-chemical-Bull for an energy boost, yet I find its fashion status a bit funny because I am living in Argentina where everyone from teenagers to grandparents drink mate and have done so for generations. It is not considered a fashion statement here – it’s a way of life.

At the beach or parks here in Buenos Aires you will see countless hoards with their mate cups and thermos flasks.

Regardless whether or not you drink it in a hipster frame of mind or for the better reason that you just like it – or even a cheeky combination of the two – mate is great because it has all the positive effects of coffee or other caffeinated beverages plus a lot of added health benefits minus the detrimental effects of caffeine on the nervous system.  Win, win, win!

It will keep you awake and focused through a long and difficult assignment, will give you energy as a new mum, fuel you if you are the allocated driver on a road trip, offer a welcome pit-stop on a long hike through the snow, get you buzzing before a party or provide a relaxing ritual on a hot summer’s day.  I guess what I am trying to say is it is versatile.

What is Yerba Mate?

Yerba mate comes from a type of holly tree and the leaves and twigs of the plant are steeped in hot water to make an infusion which is enjoyed as a hot or cold beverage.

As I’ve said, it has been exceedingly popular in South America for generations and has been quickly gaining popularity elsewhere over the past few years. This may be in part due to New York Times Bestseller, Tim Ferriss of 4-Hour Working Week fame, mentioning that he drinks mate to stay focused.  It is also a traditional drink in Syria and Lebanon. 

Mate is an acquired taste. Some don’t like the bitterness but others, like me, love it. If you like dandelion tea and other liver tonics you will probably enjoy the taste as you can feel the good it is doing you. Imagine a very strong cup of green tea and you are halfway to imagining the taste of mate.  It also has a touch of barnyard flavour to it… an aspect of hay, horses, vegetables and earth. Nom nom.

Why is Yerba Mate Good for Me?

According to Wikipedia, there have been studies which indicate that  the antioxidants and nutritional benefits combine to help:

  • improve the immune system
  • detoxify the body
  • relieve allergies
  • reduce the risk of diabetes and hypoglycemia
  • burn more calories
  • act as an appetite suppressant and weight loss tool
  • increase the supply of nutrients and oxygen to the heart
  • to potentially reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke
  • increase mental energy and focus
  • improve mood
  • promote a deeper sleep BUT sleep may be affected in people who are sensitive to caffeine.

It is also said that it may reduce cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In addition, it is documented that consumption of mate may improve symptoms of hypothyroidism. I had a bad case of postpartum thyroidism which resolved very soon after I introduced mate to my day.  I’m not sure how direct the correlation was but it felt like it revved my metabolism right up.

How do I make Yerba Mate?

There’s a bit of paraphernalia required to make mate the traditional way. There are also a number of steps involved in the proper preparation of mate which seem to add to the ritual and are part of the fun of this drink.

You will need:

  • A bag of the dry leaves and twigs
  • A kettle or thermos of hot (not boiling water)
  • A hollow “gourd” which is used as a drinking vessel
  • A “bombilla” or metal straw

Gourd and bombilla

If you don’t have a customised gourd you could even make the tea in any old coffee cup providing you have the metal straw to drink it with.  I speak more about gourd options below.

How to Make it

Step 1

Fill your gourd / cup so it’s about half full with mate leaves (depending on the size of the gourd).  It is generally preferable to fill it just over half-way.

Step 2

Cover the top of the gourd with the palm of your hand and turn it upside down.  This is to remove sediment and powder from the leaves.  Turn the gourd back to its normal position and brush your hand clean.  Repeat 2 more times.

Step 3

Carefully rotate the gourd so it is almost sideways shake it gently back and forth to encourage larger stems to surface.  Keep the leaves in the shape of this sloping pile.

Step 4

Insert the bombilla into the gourd away from the sloping pile of leaves.

Step 5

Pour cool water into the empty space above the leaves until just before it reaches the top of the pile and wait for it to be absorbed. Bring the end of the bombilla to the bottom and against the wall, as far from the powdery tip of the pile as possible.

Step 6

Suck the water out and spit it into the sink or onto the ground if you are hiking or whatever.  Pretend you are Clint Eastwood spitting tobacco in a gritty Western.

Step 7

Pour hot water into the empty space as you did at step 5. It is important that you use hot water (70–80 °C, 160–180 °F) and not boiling water as boiling water will make the mate bitter.

Step 8

FINALLY, it is time to drink!  Drink the mate with the bombilla and be careful to not move the bombilla around too much or you may clog the end of the straw with the leaves.  Expect to get a tiny bit of leaf shrapnel in your mouth.  It happens.  You can buy special filters to stop this but maybe it is better for the soul to experience drinking it the traditional way.

Tereré

Another popular way to drink mate, especially during Summer, is with cold, iced water and this is called tereré.  Some people add pomegranate juice to it for a refreshing twist.

Social Drinking

Drinking mate is a social activity in South America as the gourd is passed around, often in a circle, and each person finishes the gourd before giving it back to the brewer.  I have even known of bus trips where a gourd is passed through the entire busload of passengers from one to another.  Although it’s fun, I have often wondered about the practicality of this as it seems like a great way to share cold sores and other viruses and infections, but nobody seems too worried about it here.  Traditionally the gourd is passed in a clockwise order until the water runs out.

You can still enjoy mate on your own if you use a smaller gourd / cup and less of the leaves.  Many office workers here in Argentina will have their own little gourd and thermos on their desk at work.

Where can I get Yerba Mate?

If you are in Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia or parts of Brazil, you can easily pick some mate up at a very reasonable price at your local supermarket in a dozen varieties including combinations mixed with mint and orange for flavour variation.  However, if you are far from the home of mate, I have found that some fresh food markets even in places like Australia will stock the leaves for around $5 a bag.

Wow, sounds amazing, are there any bad things I need to hear?

All that stuff about it being a caffeine alternative – that’s not exactly accurate:

According to various sources, mate is not a caffeine alternative but is in fact just something called mateine which is just another word for caffeine!  Now I am no scientist and I don’t know the answers but the general claim is that mateine is good and caffeine is bad.  Mateine allows you to feel calm and alert with no jittery feelings or insomnia which can be a big problem with caffeine.  But is this just marketing / hype / folklore?

Some say that it’s the other ingredients in mate which work in conjunction with the mateine to give a better quality “buzz” than caffeine.  For example, in Mark’s Daily Apple he talks about mate containing theobromine and speaks about it being “an effective vasodilator, relaxing the smooth muscle in blood vessels and allowing better blood flow”.  He also mentions that mate contains less of the caffeine / mateine than is found in coffee or tea.

Conclusion: maybe it is kind of the same thing as caffeine but seems the effects are not as pronounced and other ingredients reduce the problems associated with ingesting caffeine.

Cancer link:

Yikes.  There have been studies showing a possible link between some kinds of cancer and mate consumption.  Immediately I am put off but when I read more about it I find that most of this connection with oral cancer appears to be linked to the temperature at which the drink is taken.  Since any very hot drinks can interfere with health, although this sounds very scary, it is possible it is nothing to be too worried about.  Just make sure you are not drinking it when it is still very hot.  There has also been a weak link found to increased incidence of other types of cancer and researchers found carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in multiple varieties of mate which may be the cause.

This talk sheds a lot of light on the subject: A Fresh Look into the Yerba Mate and Cancer Issue. It speaks about the studies in depth and talks about variables such as test subjects being smokers and heavy drinkers with a range of other health complaints and the fact that questions put to the participants were subjective (such as asking if the mate was drunk warm or hot when these are subjectively taken measurements).  The video even mentions a 2011 study which showed mate to destroy colon cancer cells in vitro.  Because I am not an oncologist or scientist or trained in any way to have an opinion on this point, all I can surmise is that the views are divergent and the studies appear to be inconclusive at this stage.

However, my own potted theory is that the problem with mate (if there is one) may not be the mate itself but the gourd.  You see the gourd tends to get a bit gross and mouldy even after being washed thoroughly between uses.  I have often noticed a strong musty smell from the clean and dry gourd which seems unrelated to the mate.  Mould causes all manner of terrible diseases and imbalances in human beings so it does not seem far fetched to me that this may be part of the problem.  For this reason I did something untraditional and nerdy and invested in a silicon “gourd” for around $10.  It is great.  You can also get glass, metal or wood gourds but silicon, stainless steel, ceramic or glass all seem like the most hygienic options to me.

Conclusion: wait for the research to shed more light on this issue.  In the meantime, don’t drink your mate (or any other drink for that matter) too hot.  Buy good quality organic mate and don’t drink it to ridiculous excess and you should be fine.  Also, preferably drink from a vessel that is easy to clean.  You could try one of these, or just use a cup:

I hope I haven’t scared you off with the information above because mate might just be the best thing ever. I love it!

Have you tried mate?  What did you think of the taste / effects?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Main photo: Evan-Lovely  Photo of gourd and bombilla: Refracted Moments™

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