Yerba Mate - Beverage of Champions or Dusty Snake Oil?
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
The South American herbal tea fad has become de rigueur for hipsters, but is it a health panacea or a gourd of twigs and dust?
The Herbal tea is made from the dried twigs and leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, a member of the Holly family. The leaves contain caffeine and the resultant infusion is wildly popular in South American countries, Paraguay, Argentina and most of all, in Uruguay.
The drink is prepared in a gourd, with the dried leaves mix being loaded up to about three quarters of the container before hot, but critically, not boiling water, is poured onto the mixture. The drink is consumed through a metal straw with a gauze on the bottom to prevent particles being sucked into your mouth. An important part of the Mate experience is that it is consumed communally, much like passing around an illicit substance cigarette or a Shisha pipe. In Uruguay annual consumption per capita is an astounding 10kg, although this seems more impressive than it may first appear, considerably more product goes into a portion of Yerba Mate tea than a traditional British cuppa.
Originally a drink consumed by the indigenous people of southern Brazil and Paraguay before the plant was domesticated by Jesuit missionaries. These methods were lost after the expulsion of the Jesuits, but Brazil and Argentina developed these methods once again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sparking a constant competitive struggle to be the top global producer of the plant. Currently Brazil holds that honour, producing a little over half the world’s Mate.
Mate started to emerge into European mainstream cultural awareness only very recently. Images of elite footballers disembarking their team coaches clutching strange gourds with metal straws, their heads wreathed in over-sized, over-priced headphones were beamed across the globe.
The popularity of Yerba Mate with footballers can probably be tied to the influx of South American players, and the exponents of the beverage are quick to highlight the health and performance benefits.
Antioxidants and Nutrients:
The caffeine content increases alertness but for a more prolonged period of time than coffee. It is also considered to not have the crash effects of other forms of caffeine consumption or to have the negative impacts on sleep.
Caffeoyl derivatives are the same compounds found in traditional tea that have antioxidant properties.
The bitter Saponin compounds have anti-inflammatory and anti cholesterol effects.
Polyphenols are another group of antioxidants that are linked to reducing risks in many diseases.
Yerba Mate contains seven of the nine essential amino acids and almost every vitamin and mineral your body needs. However, the small quantities of nutrients means it cannot be relied upon as a significant contributor to your diet on its own.
Caffeine is known to improve muscle contractions, improve physical performance and reduce fatigue. One study found that 1 gram of Yerba Mate immediately before exercise burned 24% more fat. This could help leave your carb stores for more critical high intensity moments, theoretically assisting in performance. The ideal amount of Yerba Mate to achieve these benefits is unknown.
Protection against Infection:
Tests have revealed some interesting findings with Yerba Mate deactivating E-Coli, helping in preventing dry skin, rashes and dandruff and a further study showed benefits in fighting intestinal parasites.
These studies were done on isolated cells and it is yet to be confirmed if such results translate to human consumption of the beverage.
Lose weight and Belly fat:
Animal studies have shown Yerba Mate may reduce appetite and improve metabolism. It seems to also decreases the number of fat cells and reduces the size of these cells and therefore the amount of fat they can hold.
A 12 week study in overweight people showed 3 grams daily assisted in losing weight and improving their hip to waist ratio.
Further potential benefits
Yerba Mate can potentially aid in reducing the risk of heart disease, lowering blood sugar and boosting your immune system, but there is very little science to yet confirm these claims.
Potential negative effects
Studies have shown consumption of hot liquids can increase the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat or lungs, however some of the compounds in Yerba Mate may also protect against cancer.
Due to some of the active ingredients in Yerba Mate it is not advised that people prescribed medication for Parkinson’s or Depression should drink Yerba Mate.
Studies on health and medical impacts are taken from this article and it's associated references.
So despite all that, the big question is really, what does it taste like?
Well, the Bulldogz team have done the taste test so you don’t have to, because, frankly it’s disgusting. It has been described as a blend of vegetables, herbs and grass, or similar to green teas. It is unquestionably bitter and is often sweetened in various ways to make it more palatable.
Our descriptions range from “Barrel aged Donkey Felch” to “the squeezed damp from loft insulation”. “Something akin to student housing dishcloth juice” or “The bitter rind of an ashtray harvest”. It is deceptive in literally having no offensive taste as it enters the mouth, but the bitter jolt at the back of the throat makes this beverage very much an acquired taste. As you refill the gourd for another “hit”, gradually the bitter edge eases off, but not enough to save the drink from its ruined taste reputation.
We found we suffered from a rapid onset of bloated flatulence that even sent the dog nose diving to the floor to escape the rising bad tempered hot air.
There can be no doubt it reduced our appetite, partly because we felt bloated, and partly because our throats found a new path to the gag reflex.
The phrase “acquired taste” is oft overused, this is certainly an accurate use of the expression and the Bulldogz team remain utterly unconvinced by the product. That being said, we are determined to persist with our scientific study and will put the beverage through a road test by drinking prior to exercise and seeing if there are any improvements in performance.
Recommendations to improve taste include citrus rind or juice, honey, vanilla extract or even buying infused flavour blends. We strongly recommend some experimenting to find a more welcoming taste!
Let us know if you disagree or if you have any testimony on the benefits of Mate. After all, something that looks and tastes like pre-Industrial revolution medicine must have some positive effects. Surely?