Hold the Coffee: Is Yerba Mate the New, Clean Caffeine?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C on February 1, 2018Written by Tiffany La Forge on February 1, 2018
yerba mate

 Goodbye coffee jitters

We all need a little afternoon boost sometimes. But when that midday slump comes a-callin’, don’t reach for a third cup of caffeine or that neon-labeled bubbly drink. There are much better options, like the beloved yerba mate.

Originally from South America and now a staple in German nightclubs, get to know the drink that doesn’t leave a bitter aftertaste, but a clean, fresh feeling in your mouth.

What is yerba mate?

Yerba mate is a tea-like concoction made from the South American Ilex paraguariensis tree. The leaves of this tree contain (in addition to the important ingredient, caffeine) an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids. People in South America have been using yerba mate for centuries, both socially and medicinally.

How does yerba mate taste?

This smooth and smoky tea has a distinct, earthy flavor. Yet unlike tea, yerba mate has a low tannin content. Flavors come across bolder and stronger (like coffee) without becoming overly bitter.

You can steep it, just like any other tea, although it’s traditionally brewed in a special mate gourd with a “bambilla” (metal straw). It can be enjoyed hot, cold, sweetened, or flavored.

Say goodbye to caffeine jitters

Although the caffeine content of a cup of mate varies — it’s somewhere between green tea and coffee — the energy buzz from yerba mate is unlike any other. Many describe mate as supplying a balanced, clean energy boost. No anxiety or jitters. Think of it as an alternative energy drink that fits right in with trends like clean eating and satisfies anyone’s craving for carbonated joy, sans-added sugar.

These stimulating effects come from the xanthine compounds caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine (which also naturally occurs in chocolate). Its unique chemical makeup and high amount of active compounds make it a good choice for boosting energy without the negative side effects. In one small 2014 study involving athletes, for example, yerba mate was used to successfully increase their sports performance.

General studies on the effects of caffeine show that yerba mate can help with fatigue, focus, increased physical endurance, and alertness. Other studies show that yerba mate can improve cognition. A dietary supplement containing yerba mate was even shown to support “increased focus, alertness, and energy.” It also decreased fatigue without causing anxiety or changes in heart rate or blood pressure. Mate has even been said to exhibit antidepressant qualities (in rats).

Can your coffee do this?

There’s more health benefits to yerba mate besides increased energy. It contains an impressive 196 active compounds, after all! These compounds make yerba mate an aid in lowering cholesterol levels and keeping your body liver-friendly, as well as rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants and beneficial to weight loss.

Be an antioxidant powerhouse

Yerba mate possesses more antioxidants than any other tea-based drink — yes, even green tea. The antioxidants present in mate are polyphenols, powerful cancer-fighting antioxidants that are also found in berries, dark chocolate, and spices. Yerba mate contains 11 of these polyphenols, in addition to 24 vitamins and minerals and 15 amino acids.

Yerba mate is high in

  • vitamin B and C
  • phosphorus
  • iron
  • calcium
  • flavonoids (antioxidants)
  • amino acids

Boost your immune system

Due to mate’s high level of the natural compounds saponins, it exhibits a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. These phytochemicals can strengthen the immune system and protect the body from disease.

Besides containing antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, mate also contains several vitamins and minerals that help support a healthy immune system. Vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and zinc are all present in mate and all exhibit immune-boosting qualities.

Support weight loss

Studies have shown that those same saponins we discussed above may also be beneficial to weight loss. Mate has been shown to have positive weight management effects by improving the lipid parameters in both animals and humans. Additionally, mate can help burn stored fat, increase the effectiveness of exercise for weight loss, and according to a study on mice, potentially be used to treat obesity and diabetes.

Mate may also support heart health, aid in digestion, and lower LDL cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure — all of which can help keep you at your healthiest, optimal weight.

Are there side effects to yerba mate?

This is what mate lovers rave about: There’s no big health risks when consumed in moderation. For people who normally drink caffeine on-the-go, side effects are rare. People who are more sensitive may experience a slight headache, stomach discomfort, or uneasiness. Mate may also interact with certain chemo or depression medications and antibiotics, so it’s important to double-check with your doctor before using it.

Due to its high caffeine content, drinking mate isn’t recommended for those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or people with high levels of anxiety, either.

Mate has dealt with a bit of controversy for potential carcinogenic qualities. However, this evidence is in relation to drinking very high quantities or drinking mate at very high temperatures (more than twice a day). Drinking mate at extremely hot temperatures (along with any other beverage) has the ability to increase throat cancer. But The International Agency for Research on Cancer has deemed mate “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans.”

Where to get your yerba fix

On a night out with friends, you’re most likely to find brands like White Label and Club-Mate at bars or clubs. White Label is a U.S.-based company while Club-Mate is from Germany. Both contain added sugar (with glucose-fructose sugar in Club-Mate and cane sugar in White Label). You could also get your own yerba-fix by making a yerba mate syrup and adding carbonated water.

But for a more relaxed experience, purchase loose yerba mate tea and prepare it at home. Try the traditional preparation of yerba mate with a mate gourd and bombilla from Amazon. Or read up on the other ways you can try it — yes, even in your French Press!

If you’re feeling something simpler, purchase yerba mate in tea bags, ready to be used just like your earl grey. You can also typically find flavored mate drinks, such as mint or organic double dark chocolate.

However, Guayaki, one of the biggest yerba mate retailers, recently discontinued all five of their flavored bag varieties, stating on their website that the benefits and strength of flavored mate is “not in alignment with the strength of this powerful rainforest plant.” You’ve probably seen Guayaki in fridges at local grocers, 7-Eleven, and Whole Foods, in the form of bottled mate, cans, and shots.

With all those nutrients, antioxidants, and proven health benefits, it seems like a smart choice to replace your afternoon energy drink with a cup of yerba mate. What do you think? Will you be making the switch soon?

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Tiffany La Forge is a professional chef, recipe developer, and food writer who runs the blog Parsnips and Pastries. Her blog focuses on real food for a balanced life, seasonal recipes, and approachable health advice. When she’s not in the kitchen, Tiffany enjoys yoga, hiking, traveling, organic gardening, and hanging out with her corgi, Cocoa. Visit her at her blog or on Instagram.

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