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What is Yerba Mate (And Should You Try It)?

May 25, 2024

From earthy mushroom-based brews to turmeric-spiced elixirs, there seems to always be a new coffee alternative or morning supplement full of health promises to try. Yerba mate is one such alternative — and though it might seem like a trendy new beverage, it’s actually an ancient plant with long-established medicinal properties.

Here’s what you need to know about this potent herb, including whether you should consider trying it. 

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What is yerba mate?

Yerba mate (the Latin name is Ilex paraguariensis) is a variety of holly tree that thrives in sub-tropical climates. It’s native to South America and is most commonly found in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The evergreen tree has thick, stiff leaves that are harvested, dried, and brewed into a caffeinated hot beverage. 

Health benefits of mate

“Yerba mate has been described as having the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate,” says Fabiana Pose, Guayakí Yerba Mate vice president of South America. The potency comes from the plant’s natural caffeine. One cup has about 70 milligrams, compared to the roughly 100 grams in a cup of coffee. 

Mate also contains polyphenols, plant-based antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation and protect against certain chronic diseases. Studies have also linked yerba mate to improved liver and cardiovascular health.  

As with most things, moderation is key. The FDA recommends that adults don’t drink more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. (Of course, your personal tolerance for caffeine may be lower than that.) 

Ultimately, as long as you stick to just one or two cups of yerba mate per day, it’s a safe and healthy drink. 

Where did the tea originate?

The first people to brew yerba mate leaves into a drink were the Guarani people. “The practice of drinking yerba mate symbolizes the profound connection between these indigenous peoples and their forest environment,” Pose says. “This relationship, cultivated over millennia, is rooted in a way of life that harmonizes with nature, values the sharing of knowledge, and underscores the respect for the land.”

Over the past several hundred years, yerba mate has become a staple beverage in several South American countries. 

There’s a fair bit of ceremony surrounding how yerba mate is brewed and enjoyed. The tea represents community and togetherness, and in that spirit, it’s traditionally served out of a special vessel made from a dried, hollowed-out gourd. The gourd is passed between friends in a tradition that “cultivates connection and community spirit,” says Pose. 

What to look for when buying yerba mate

You don’t need to travel south of the equator or host a structured ceremony to enjoy yerba mate at home. Several brands have brought the tea to U.S. grocery stores, and you can buy ready-to-drink chilled cans or dried leaves to brew it yourself. 

Pose points to a few main indicators of quality to look for when buying yerba mate at the grocery store or online. You’ll want to ensure your mate is “shade-grown, regenerative, organic, and Fair Trade,” she says. 

Shade-grown means just what it sounds like: Yerba mate trees are adapted to grow under the canopy of a forest. Though they will grow in the sun (and this is a cheaper option for producers, as they don’t have to maintain shade-giving trees), shade-grown mate is more sustainable and natural to the plant. As Pose explains, shade-grown mate “supports rich biodiversity by mimicking, or maintaining, the natural forest environment.”

Pose also recommends seeking mate with Regenerative Organic and Fair Trade certifications. These are among “the highest standards for agriculture in the world,” and ensure that your tea is produced in an environmentally friendly way with fair labor conditions. 

Read next: The 5 Amazing Health Benefits of Drinking Green Tea

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