cup of yerba mate

Yerba mate (pronounced matay) has been valued in South America for centuries, long before Columbus set off on his epic journey. A hot “tea” was made from the leaves of a holly tree (Ilex paraguariensis) and it was purported to have healing properties. It has remained popular in countries like Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Now, yerba mate is gaining converts in North America as well. Here is a recent question:

Q. My friend introduced me to yerba mate, a tea from South America. He said that if he drinks it in the afternoon he feels alert but not jittery.

What can you tell me about yerba mate? I have high blood pressure and I try to stay away from caffeine.

A. Yerba mate comes from a South American tree in the holly family. It has long been a traditional beverage for tribes in the region. In Argentina and Uruguay drinking mate is often a social event.

The leaves contain caffeine, theobromine and theophylline, and all appear in the brew. The caffeine content is between tea and coffee. It has less theobromine than cocoa. The drink is rich in polyphenols that might have health benefits, but there aren’t many studies.

One small clinical trial showed that yerba mate did not affect blood pressure or heart rate (Phytomedicine, Oct., 1999).
We suggest you measure your blood pressure before and after drinking a cup to see how it affects you.

Many years ago (Nov, 1997) we received a somewhat similar question:

Safer? Healthier than Coffee?

Q. Some years ago, I lived in Argentina and came to know their national drink, yerba mate. I was told it had all kinds of nutritional benefits. The gauchos (Argentine cowboys) used to live on mate and meat.

I keep some around and have it a couple of times a week instead of tea or coffee. Is it really much better health-wise than those beverages? Should I be taking it more often?

We answered:

Yerba mate has about the same amount of caffeine as a small cup of coffee. It does have some vitamins and minerals  including C, B1, nicotinic acid, potassium, magnesium and manganese, though this does not make it a health drink. There is concern that people who drink it frequently may be at higher risk of cancer of the esophagus.

After reviewing what we wrote about esophageal cancer and yerba mate 18 years ago, we thought we would do some digging to see if that concern still exists. An article in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention (Jan, 2014) provides the context for their analysis:

“[Mate] is a non-alcoholic beverage consumed throughout southern South America, and is gaining broader acceptance in other areas of the world as a tea and dietary supplement based on purported health benefits, such as lowered cholesterol levels, improved cardiovascular health and obesity management. However, studies have linked maté consumption with esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC), as well as cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, lung, kidney and bladder. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designated hot maté drinking a probable human carcinogen. Proposed carcinogenic mechanisms include thermal injury from repeated high temperature exposure and exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a production-related contaminant.”

The investigators analyzed data from two epidemiological studies and concluded that the more mate tea people consumed the greater the risk for developing esophageal cancer. This association seemed to be greater the hotter the tea. The scientists attributed this added risk to “thermal injury.”

What are we to make of this report? Epidemiological studies can only suggest an association. They cannot prove there is a problem. Nevertheless, it does appear that drinking a lot of extremely hot mate tea could be problematic. One cup of warm tea now and then may not pose much of a problem, but drinking very hot yerba mate regularly is probably not a good idea.

Have you ever tried yerba mate? What does it taste like? Share your experience below and please vote on the article by choosing a star at the top of this page.

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  1. Holly
    Ukiah, Ca

    I drink Guayaki brand Yerba Mate it is organic and served cold. I was drinking 4-5 red bulls a day until a friend told me to try Guayaki! It is amazing for energy without the crash. I also have HBP it doesn’t affect it. its all organic too!

  2. sher

    Jude, from US, says that “she drinks yerba mate to help with leg cramps,” but if she runs out of Mate, the cramps become worse. Then she says “even though she uses SOAP IN THE BED.” Is she trying to imply that using the soap helps with leg cramps? I, too, suffer from leg cramps; I am unclear as to what “soap in the bed” can do to alleviate leg cramps. I’d like to know how to use soap to help. Thank you.

  3. Michael

    If you drink yerba matte make sure is organic ! I used to buy non organic yerba mate from Argentina and I wrote the company a email in Spanish to my surprised the laboratory of the company answer after 4 weeks!! and listed the pesticides! yes it contains 3 pesticides and another chemical to preserve it! so you need to buy organic only! any tea you buy ~~!! wow ! what toxic world we are living in !

  4. tony

    I loved to drink it…. but my blood pressure went to the moon!

  5. HP

    I’m a healthy and fit 53 year old male, and former drinker of yerba mate. During my annual physical a couple of years ago my EKG showed an irregular heart beat. So I went to a cardiologist and had the stress test – all good except for the irregular heart beat. The cardiologist simply advised me “take it as a wake up call”. I of course went to another cardiologist immediately where we discussed my last 3 years blood tests and physical results, and the stress test. She then asked me lifestyle questions, diet, exercise, etc. When I advised her I drink “lots of green teas” she drilled down and when she heard I was drinking yerba mate daily she told me to stop. Two weeks later, my irregular heartbeat was gone, and my EKG’s are back to normal. Please make your readers aware of this side affect of yerba mate so others can avoid the fear that a misdiagnosis may cause.

    • Harry H.
      Black Mountain, NC

      I recently had an experience quite similar to HP’s.
      I am 68 years old, in relatively good health, eat carefully and get a modest amount of exercise. I converted to decaffeinated drinks about 15 years ago. Four years ago, I was diagnosed as having PVC (premature ventricular contraction) and slightly elevated blood pressure. I had the full battery of tests. I was found to have no cardiovascular disease and began taken Diltiazem 240 ER once per day at night. My blood pressure dropped to the normal range and my irregular heartbeat disappeared.

      I am currently receiving oral chelation due to elevated lead, mercury and thallium.

      About a week ago, I found a bag of organic yerbe mate left over from our health food store and began drinking it for my morning tea. Within a couple of days, I was awakening a couple of additional times per night (I haven’t slept through for almost 40 years) and becoming very fatigued easily. On the 4th or 5th afternoon, I laid down to nap and heard my pulse beating quite quickly. I used my blood pressure cuff to measure my pulse. In both arms by BP was up about 20/10 and my pulse 125-135 and irregular. After walking at a moderate pace for 200 yards, I measured it again and got the same results. I did a slightly more strenous torse exercise for 10 minutes and got the same result. I went to my pharmacist who got the same results.

      After a discussion with a nurse at my board certified family physician’s, I decided to monitor the situation and call back the next morning. That evening, I remembered my drinking the yerbe mate. About 11 PM, I measured again. My BP was down to normal and my pulse had dropped to 72-73 and was regular. At 5 AM the next morning, my BP was normal again and my pulse down to 63-64 and regular 10 times in a row.

      I went back to my decaffeinated tea. That night, I got up only once for an hour and then slept until 9:40 AM! That is the longest I have slept in one night at least a year.

      Despite searching for an hour or so on the web including the FDA’s website, this is the only reference to this problem I have found.
      Thank you, HP & Tony.

  6. Jude
    United States

    I have been drinking hierba mate regularly for over 35 years. I have one (double) cup of it every morning, and drink it like any other tea, with milk and sugar. (In Argentina, children are served mate this way.) My guess is that the studies were done on the traditional way of drinking it — extremely hot tea with nothing added. As you said, it’s a social thing in Argentina, where almost boiling water is added to a gourd full of mate leaves and stems, then immediately passed around for everyone to sip on with a metal “straw”. Since it is quite high in potassium, I swear that it helps me with the leg cramps I suffer from, since if I run out of mate, my cramps become worse, even though I also use soap in the bed.

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