The Nutritional Powerhouse Behind Yerba Mate

Today, I am here to talk about one other such superfood that has recently acquired attention in western civilization for its various health benefits: Yerba Mate.

Over the last several years, the term “superfoods” has taken over language and western culture. These superfoods are not new or some recent scientific breakthrough, however. They have been around for centuries and have only recently begun to gain steam to broader audiences. Regardless of the exact superfood though, the one common thread that I have noticed is that it is almost always already known, loved, and regularly used in at least one culture’s traditional practices. Take the Indian gooseberry (amla) and moringa, for example. Though only relatively recently introduced to the superfoods market in America, these two ingredients have been used in everyday cooking for centuries in India. Today, I am here to talk about one other such superfood that has recently acquired attention in western civilization for its various health benefits: yerba mate.

Yerba mate is made from the leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, and traditionally sipped out of a gourd through a metal straw. It was considered a communal event and everyone would take part in sipping the mate out of the calabash. Today (and especially due to the current Coronavirus climate), the communal part of the experience is essentially gone. However, as times change, traditions evolve and take on their own characteristics. South American countries such as Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil are the top producers of yerba mate in the world.

I have been having yerba mate in its tea form for the last several weeks. It wasn’t something that I had actively seeked out to try, but when I began working with MateCaps, I knew it was time for me to get first hand experience. I got the tea bags and steeped them in boiling water for a few minutes, and prepared it that way. It has a light taste, almost like a lighter version of green tea, and had deeply bitter undertones. This probably has to do with the tannins in the leaves and exactly when in its maturity the leaves were harvested. But I have become a pretty big fan of all things bitter over the last few years: black and green tea, beer, dark chocolate, and coffee. I can now add yerba mate to that list.

As a nutrition enthusiast and plant based lifestyle coach, there are a few stereotypes and myths surrounding nutrition that are just not true. I want to address one of these myths today, and one for which yerba mate is a great counterexample: cooking food destroys all nutrients. This is simply not true. Like most whole foods, nutrition profiles are complicated and are often dependent on many factors.

I bring this up because unlike most other superfoods (moringa, blueberries, acai, etc), yerba mate is processed. So don’t let that deter you from having it. The health benefits are perhaps one of the most talked about positive results of consuming yerba mate. So let’s talk about it. Yerba mate in its consumable form has an abundance of bioactive compounds, which are beneficial to overall health: flavonoids and polyphenols (protect against free radical damage), xanthines(stimulant), saponins(shown by clinical studies to reduce cancer risk, lower cholesterol, and lower blood sugar), amino acids, and vitamins and minerals (support metabolism and development). In addition, yerba mate has been shown to aid in weight loss. Some studies have suggested that the caffeine in the product hinders the absorption of dietary fat; therefore, yerba mate is now being investigated as a weight loss supplement. In vitro and in vivo experiments on animals have revealed the toxic effects yerba mate has on cancer cells, killing human liver cancer cells in vitro. In vivo testing on rats showed improved blood flow through blood vessels, reducing atherosclerosis risk. With a combined total of over 150 bioactive compounds, promoting diabetes control, heart health, weight loss, energy, and cellular protection, it is impossible to discuss each benefit at length in one article. However, there is no doubt that this superfood is a major powerhouse of health boosting compounds.

There are quite a few steps involved to process yerba mate from its leaves to the finished product. After harvesting the tender leaves, the leaves are blanched (flash heated and dried for less than 3 minutes over wood fire) in order to break down the bitter taste and stop enzyme activity, but also preserve the nutritional integrity of the leaves. Then the yerba mate is further dried in order to lessen the water content. From here, depending on the desired taste, the leaves can be milled into a powder and distributed, or they can undergo an aging process, which can last upwards of 12 additional months, before milling and distribution.

The research around yerba mate’s properties is continually developing. This article would not be complete if I didn’t speak from all angles of nutrition. There is some evidence that drinking 12 or more cups a day of yerba mate for prolonged periods of time can lead to anxiety, insomnia or nervousness. This is not a surprise, as excessive caffeine tends to have that effect on many people, myself included. I can attest however, that my one or two cups a day that I have been keeping up, has not brought up any new issues in my day to day life. For reference, I get more jitters from drinking a few sips of coffee on an empty stomach. In addition, heavy smokers and alcohol drinkers who consume around 2 liters of yerba mate a day for prolonged periods of time are said to be at a higher risk of certain types of cancer. Do note however, that these side effects are highly unlikely for the average wellness enthusiast who is simply on the lookout for more variety in health promoting substances. And as always, consult your healthcare provider before you self supplement or start a new diet plan, as each of our nutritional needs is different. The evidence as of now is still developing, but as we progress and conduct more controlled studies, we will be able to see emerging patterns and learn more about yerba mate’s properties.

There is no doubt of the potential of yerba mate as a powerful and versatile health supplement. When MateCaps comes out with their product I definitely look forward to trying their organic, functional, and waste free experience, and I urge you all to look into it as well! As I continue to enjoy small but steady amounts of yerba mate in my day to day life, my inner nutrition nerd is excited to see where future research leads us.