Yerba Mate, a traditional South American drink, has gained so much popularity that it can be found in everything from energy drinks to mate lattes. I've also seen it mentioned more and more However, there are still a lot of misconceptions about this delicious traditional beverage.
In this article, I'm going to share:
- What is yerba mate tea? Where does it come from?
- How much caffeine is in yerba mate + why it's different from coffee
- The health benefits of yerba mate tea
- How to brew yerba mate & what it tastes like, with traditional vs modern, hot vs cold brewing
- Yerba mate recipes, to drink and to eat!
- Myth-busting: yerba mate + cancer. Is it safe to drink?
- Why yerba mate is a true superfood
What Is Yerba Mate?
Yerba mate comes from the evergreen shrub Ilex paraguariensis. Indigenous peoples across South America traditionally consumed an infusion of this plant as a delicious beverage to help combat fatigue and to settle gastrointestinal discomfort. It is still an extremely popular drink today too (Taylor, 2005).
It is a member of the holly family, though not quite like your typical Christmas decorations! For one, its leaves aren't prickly, and it also only grows in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and parts of Chile.
Yerba mate has a smooth, woody taste; somewhat similar to green tea, but richer and more herbaceous.
Since "yerba mate" is a term created by Spanish-speaking countries, "mate" has two syllables. Thus, you pronounce it as "yer-ba ma-tay."
Looseleaf yerba mate: you can find various grades, from coarse cut with stems (above) to just the leaves. All better than teabags, which can be bitter
Yerba Mate Caffeine Content - How much?
Some sources suggest that yerba mate contains no caffeine, but rather a chemically-similar compound called “mateine”. However, this is pure semantics!
Mateine is a synonym for caffeine, and they are chemically identical. Yerba mate contains almost the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, in addition to theobromine and theophylline.
In small amounts, these latter two chemicals prevent jitters, settle the stomach, and promote muscular relaxation. In large amounts, they can act similarly to caffeine and have a stimulating effect.
Mate can contain up to 85-90 mg of caffeine per 8 oz cup! For that reason, and due to other phytochemicals, it is a popular substitute for coffee (which contains 95 mg of caffeine per 8 oz cup) (Petre, 208). (Here's a handy list we made of caffeine levels of other popular drinks and teas)
As with coffee, though, it is best to drink no more than 3-4 cups of yerba mate per day.
From our own experience, and the reviews and feedback from our customers, mate doesn't give the 'coffee jitters,' and also doesn't cause the dreaded 'coffee slump' where you crash an hour after having a cup of joe. Instead, we've found it helps with steady concentration and alertness throughout the day. Yay antioxidants, combining for a great energy drink!
Go in-depth on caffeine...
➔ For a full intro to caffeine: Caffeine in Coffee and Tea: All You Need to Know
➔ For caffeine as part of a balanced diet: Caffeine's Impact on Fasting & Fasting from Caffeine: What You Need to Know
➔ How caffeine works and levels in tea: White Tea Caffeine Levels (More than you think! + how caffeine brews)
➔ Getting sciency: Is Tea, Coffee or Caffeine Good for Your Kidneys? What Teas Are Best?
➔ Can't forget your liver! Learn Are Tea, Coffee or Caffeine Good or Bad for Your Liver? What Teas Are Best?
A wintery mate latte with foamed milk with cinnamon
The Health Benefits of Yerba Mate Tea
Yerba mate is a panacea of goodness! Full of minerals like zinc, potassium, iron and vitamins B1, B2 and C, it makes for a nutritious beverage (Petre, 2018).
Yerba mate also contains saponins - a group of compounds that decrease blood lipids, lower blood glucose response, decrease cancer risk, and are commonly found in adaptogenic herbs (Herb Wisdom, 2022; Akaripour, 2014). (If you're not sure what those are, check out my post about adaptogens!)
Mate is anti-inflammatory and full of antioxidants, scoring a 1700 on the ORAC scale (for comparison, matcha clocks in at 1384 and green tea at 1253). For more info about the ORAC scale and how it measures antioxidants, read my post on the subject.
Some of yerba mate's main health benefits include:
- Can stimulate immune cells, to help prevent infections, such as skin rashes and food poisoning, as well as boosting your immune system due to its anti-inflammatory properties (Petre, 2018)
- Pain relief, with tradtional use for treating nerve pain and rheumatic pain, and headaches (Herb Wisdom, 2022)
- Helping with allergies by reducing inflammation (Ibid)
- Helping with arthritis, again by reducing inflammation (Ibid)
- Can help with obesity by reducing the appetite, increasing metabolism and some research suggests mate even decreases total number of fat cells, and how much fat each cell can store. Plus it helps burn more energy thanks to its high caffeine levels (Petre, 2018)
- Mentally, mate may help boost memory, focus and cognition. Mate's antioxidants can help reduce or avoid plaque deposition in the brain, which could help prevent dementia (Nagdeve, 2020)
- Helps prevent and manage iron deficiancy, as well as improve blood circulation, as mate contains high iron levels (Wrobel, 2000)
- The antioxidants in yerba mate can help prevent early aging, cell death, and DNA damage (Nagdeve, 2020)
In short, yerba mate's antioxidants do some amazing things! As with all teas and tisanes, it is an ideal addition to your normal tea routine, so you can enjoy mate's antioxidants and caffeine alongside your other brews. A varied and balanced diet applies to teas as well as food! ;-)
How to Brew Yerba Mate & What Does Mate Taste Like?
There are three main ways to brew mate. In all cases, remember that mate burns easily, so be gentle when brewing it!
What does is the flavor of yerba mate?
- Unroasted green mate tastes beautiful: Soft, lightly roasted, no bitterness or astringency, smooth, with a lemon-like aftertaste, it is almost minty and cooling. If you brew it in too-hot water, though, it can go bitter.
- Roasted mate has a completely different flavor profile: Soft, sweet, like maple syrup, with no bitterness and strong notes of caramel and brown sugar.
- Mate in teabags: Because the leaves are ground up into a fine dust, they release all their flavor very quickly and it is hard to brew teabag mate without it going bitter. It tends to have a stronger taste than looseleaf green mate, because every single part of the leaf is brewing instantly. Top tip: avoid mate in teabags! (Plus, it's better for the environment, win-win)
We use these two mates above as the bases for all our mate blends, depending on if we want a light lemony flavor or richer, more wintery notes.
Modern Mate Brewing
These steps will make sure you end up with the perfect mate tea, without any special equipment:
- Pour a small splash of cold water over 1-2 tsp of the loose leaves in your tea strainer, just enough to completely wet them. This protects them from being scalded.
- Steep the leaves in 8 oz (one mug) of water that has just started simmering (100-170F) for 2-3 minutes. Don't let the water boil - otherwise, you'll burn the fragile leaves, destroying their nutrients and giving them a bitter taste.
- If you don't have a thermometer, take your kettle off the boil when it starts to simmer. When you pour it, hold the kettle up high to maximize how far the water needs to fall before it hits your leaves.
Traditional Mate Brewing
The traditional way of preparing mate is in a hollowed out gourd (and very traditionally consumed over time as part of the 'ronda del mate' ceremony). The leaves stay in the tea as you drink it, and are filtered out via the bombilla, a straw with a filter at the end. The bombilla was traditionally made with hollow stalks, but now it is more common to find metal or bamboo bombillas.
First, fill your gourd halfway with looseleaf yerba mate. Then, pour a little cold water over the leaves to moisten them (this also protects them from burning). Tilt the gourd on its side and tap it so the leaves fall to one side into a mound. Put your bomilla (straw) into the non-mounded side.
Now it's time for your hot water: Pour non-boiling water (100-170F) about halfway up the gourd. The top of the leaves should remain dry and uncovered!
Sip the mate through the straw until there's no more tea, then refill with your hot water and repeat. If you are with a group of friends for the Ronda del Mate, you drink the mate, refill, pass the gourd to your neighbor, they drink, and repeat.
How to Brew Iced Yerba Mate
For iced mate, you have two methods:
A) Hot Brew Iced Mate
Follow the same approach as for hot brewing above, but triple the quantity of tea used and double the water. Let it steep for at least twenty minutes. Then put it in the fridge, or pour directly over ice and enjoy.
Antioxidants tend to disappear within 3-4 hours of brewing in hot water, so be sure to drink your iced mate promptly if you're after the antioxidants! The caffeine on the other hand doesn't degrade, so it will stay caffeinated until you drink it.
B) Cold Brew Yerba Mate
You can make cold brew yerba mate by putting the leaves in cold water overnight, with the result of a 'cleaner', rounder flavor. Plus, the antioxidants will last a lot longer, as they haven't been damaged by hot brewing (antioxidants are very susceptible to heat, so cold brewing can yield an antioxidant-rich tea that will keep its goodness for up to a few days in the fridge).
When you serve, simply pour through a sieve or, better yet, brew using a stainless steel teaball so you can simply remove it.
Go in-depth on hot and cold brewing...
➔ For a full guide on cold and sun brewing, read our sun tea recipes & tutorial here.
➔ For a full guide to brewing all types of teas, read our Ultimate Guide to Brewing Tea and Tisanes.
Yerba Mate Recipes
Now you know how to brew mate, it's time to try our own tried-and-tested mate recipes! We've developed these over the past few years and you'll love them, I just know it:
Meet our mates...
For making the above recipes, you'll of course need mate! Avoid mate in teabags as it tends to be quite bitter. Looseleaf mate is a much safer bet!
Here are ours, offering a great introduction to pure and flavored mates:
➔ 'The Purist' Green Yerba Mate - An easy-drinking tea that wakes you up without the coffee jitters. A crowd favorite!
➔ Roasty Toasty Mate - Strong and roasted, an excellent coffee alternative.
➔ Wake Up! Caffeinated Rooibos Mate - An exclusive blend you won't find anywhere else! Antioxidant-rich and super smooth
➔ Roasted Ginger Chai Mate - Ginger and traditional chai spices give a warming kick to this smooth green mate
➔ Zing in Your Step Lemon Yerba Mate - Bright and cheerful, a lively lemon tea made with both lemon peel and lemon grass, and green mate base
Brewing up some yummy Zing In Your Step Lemon Yerba Mate sun tea - full recipe here
Does Yerba Mate Cause Cancer? Are there any risks?
There are questions and articles circulating about the rumor that yerba mate causes cancer. So let's dive in to myth-bust this fear-mongering!
The studies that started this rumor all connected drinking large amounts of scalding mate, plus smoking, plus drinking alcohol to an increase in certain types of cancer (Loria, 2009). By large amounts, I mean 1+ liters of extremely hot mate a day!
When such specific circumstances are met for consuming any hot liquid, such as yerba mate, the studies showed there can be an increased risk for certain kinds of cancer, due to burning and scalding the throat (Ibid).
Scalding your own throat like an obvious thing to avoid anyway, but of course everything needs to be investigated!
Which is exactly what a team from the Institute of Oncology in Buenos Aires did: they did an enormous review of all studies looking for links between yerba mate and cancer. They found that across existing studies, the chance of cancer of esophagus, larynx, and oral cavity was increased for heavy smokers and drinkers who also regularly drank 1+ liters of scalding hot yerba mate a day (Ibid).
So consuming large amounts of tea for prolonged amounts of time at very hot temperatures (149F+ when it actually hits your esophagus), can increase the risk for certain cancers.
This is a seriously scalding drink, by the way! Your normal cup of black coffee or tea or yerba mate is somewhere between 120-140F when you drink it.
And, as we just learned, mate is *brewed* at temperatures between 100-170F. It will, of course, start to cool even more by the time you drink it - you have to drink it really fast to even get to it when it's still so hot.
They theorized that the increased risk of cancer is due to the temperature of the liquid itself, burning and damaging the tissue, and then providing access for the carcinogens in tobacco and alcohol.
Simply put, yerba mate happened to be the hot beverage investigated due to its popularity across South America, but the researchers found no connection between the type of tea and cancer risk. Taken cold, yerba mate showed zero increase in cancer risk, indicating that temperature is the defining factor across these studies (Ibid).
In short, rest easy, yerba mate lovers!
A gorgeous, moody cup of mate in a metal gourd with a bombilla
Is Yerba Mate the Next Superfood?
I certainly think so! Its health benefits, tonic action, immune support and nutritional value make yerba mate tea a valuable and delicious addition to the diet.
Mate is incredibly high in antioxidants, including xanthines (caffeine, theobromine), caffeoyl, saponins and polyphenols/phenolic compounds. These are different from the antioxidants found in Camellia sinensis (i.e. tea!) and have been shown to have multiple health benefits (see above list for details) (Nagdeve, 2020).
Yerba mate has a rich history of traditional medicinal use, and is a healthy, safe, and beneficial drink ... unless you literally burn yourself with it (don't do that, please).
For all the details about what the antioxidants in yerba mate are and do, read my article covering that here.
Summertime in a cup! Citrusy goodness with a caffeine boost
From $8.50 for 1oz w/ free US shipping
An exclusive blend you won't find anywhere else. Antioxidant-rich and super smooth
From $7 for 1oz w/ free US shipping
A Note From The Herbalist...
Mate is most commonly consumed as a coffee substitute, and is enjoyed by many people around the world. My favorite is making a strong cup of our Roasty Toasty Mate and adding cinnamon, steamed milk and maple syrup. Try our Yerba Mate Recipes here!
Questions? Thoughts? Recipe ideas? Let me know in the comments below or on our IG @MatchaAlternatives
About the Author
Stephany Morgan (MSc Complementary and Alternative Medicine) is a herbalist, professor, and healthcare professional. After earning her BS in Psychology and Pre-Nursing from Rochester College with a minor in General Science she began her formal pursuit of natural medicine.
Stephany went on to earn her MSc in Complementary Alternative Medicine at the American College for Healthcare Sciences (ACHS), where she focused her studies on Herbal Medicine and Nutrition. She completed her Graduate Certification in Nutrition from ACHS in 2020. She is currently a professor at White Earth Tribal and Community College (WETCC) in Minnesota as part of a pilot project with Lead for America.
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All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.
Yerba Mate References & Further Reading
Nagdeve, Meenakshi, Aug 2020. 11 Impressive Benefits Of Yerba Mate. Organic Facts. https://www.organicfacts.net/yerba-mate.html
Herb Wisdom, 2022. Yerba Mate Benefits. HerbWisdom.com https://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-yerba-mate.html
Taylor, L, 2005. Yerba Mate: Herbal Properties and Actions. The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs. Square One Publishers, Inc, New York. ISBN: 0-7570-0144-0. http://www.rain-tree.com/yerbamate.htm
Mahomed, M, 2011. The Caffeine Molecule. University of California - Davis.
Petre, A, 2018. 8 Health Benefits of Yerba Mate (Backed by Science). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/8-benefits-of-yerba-mate#section11
Wróbel, Katarzyna; Wróbel, Kazimierz; Urbina, Edith Madaí; Colunga. Determination of total aluminum, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, and nickel and their fractions leached to the infusions of black tea, green tea, Hibiscus sabdariffa, and Ilex paraguariensis (mate) by ETA-AAS. Biological Trace Element Research; Clifton Vol. 78, Iss. 1-3, (Dec 2000): 271-80. DOI:10.1385/BTER:78:1-3:271
ScienceDirect, 2018. Adaptogen (Definition). From Integrative Medicine (Fourth Edition), 2018. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/adaptogen
Akaripour, D, 2014. Adaptogenic Herbs Explained — Reduce Stress and Fight Disease. Circle of Drink. https://circleofdrink.com/adaptogenic-herbs-explained-reduce-stress-and-fight-disease
Shi J, Arunasalam K, Yeung D, Kakuda Y, Mittal G, Jiang Y. Saponins from edible legumes: chemistry, processing, and health benefits. J Med Food. 2004 Spring;7(1):67-78. doi: 10.1089/109662004322984734. PMID: 15117556. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15117556
Natural Medicines. (2019, June 27). Yerba Mate [Monograph]. Natural Standard Professional Monograph. Retrieved from: https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=828
Maulini, S, 2020. ‘Yerba Mate Chai Latte’ - A MatchaAlternatives.com Recipe. Uncommon Kitchens: A Collection of Recipes by Mount Holyoke Alumnae and Students from, in or in Love with Europe. Independently Published. ISBN-13: 979-8565914238. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08NTJ8N42
Loria D, Barrios E, Zanetti R. Cancer and yerba mate consumption: a review of possible associations. Rev Panam Salud Publica. 2009 Jun;25(6):530-9. doi: 10.1590/s1020-49892009000600010. PMID: 19695149. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19695149
Vikash Sewram, Eduardo De Stefani, Paul Brennan, Paolo Boffetta; Maté Consumption and the Risk of Squamous Cell Esophageal Cancer in Uruguay1. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 1 June 2003; 12 (6): 508–513. http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/12/6/508