Use as a beverage
The infusion, called mate in Spanish-speaking countries or chimarrão in south Brazil, is prepared by steeping dry leaves (and twigs) of the mate plant in hot water rather than in boiling water. It is consumed similar to a tea, more traditionally hot, but sometimes cold.
Drinking mate with friends from a shared hollow gourd (also called a guampa, porongo or mate in Spanish, or cabaça or cuia in Portuguese, or zucca in Italian) with a metal straw (a bombilla in Spanish, bomba in Portuguese) is a common social practice in Uruguay, Argentina and southern Brazil among people of all ages.
Yerba mate is most popular in Uruguay, where people are seen walking on the street carrying the “mate” and “termo” in their arms and where you can find hot water stations to refill the “termo” while on the road. In Argentina, 5 kg (11 lb) of yerba mate is consumed each year per every man, woman, and child, while in Uruguay, the largest consumer of mate per capita, 10 kg (22 lb) of yerba mate is consumed per person per year.
The flavor of brewed mate resembles an infusion of vegetables, herbs, and grass, and is reminiscent of some varieties of green tea. Some consider the flavor to be very agreeable, but it is generally bitter if steeped in boiling water. Flavored mate is also sold, in which the mate leaves are blended with other herbs (such as peppermint) or citrus rind.
In Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, a toasted version of mate, known as mate cocido (Paraguay), chá mate (Brazil) or just mate, is sold in teabags and in a loose leaf form. It is often served sweetened in specialized shops or on the street either hot or iced with fruit juice or milk. In Argentina and southern Brazil, this is commonly consumed for breakfast or in a café for afternoon tea, often with a selection of sweet pastries.
An iced, sweetened version of toasted mate is sold as an uncarbonated soft drink, with or without fruit flavoring. In Brazil, this cold version of chá mate is specially popular in South and Southeast regions, and can easily be found in retail stores in the same cooler as soft-drinks. Mate batido, which is toasted, has less of a bitter flavor and more of a spicy fragrance. Mate batido becomes creamy when shaken. Mate batido is more popular in the coastal cities of Brazil, as opposed to the far southern states, where it is consumed in the traditional way (green, consumed with a silver straw from a shared gourd), and called chimarrão.and in Argentina, this is called cimarrón.
In Paraguay, western Brazil (Mato Grosso do Sul, west of São Paulo) and the Litoral Argentino, a mate infusion is also consumed as a cold or iced beverage and called tereré or tererê (in Spanish and Portuguese, respectively), and is usually sucked out of a horn cup called guampa with a bombilla. Tereré can be prepared using cold or iced water (the most common way in Paraguay) or using cold or iced fruit juice (the most common way in Argentina). The “only water” version may be too bitter, but the one prepared using fruit juice is sweetened by the juice itself. Medicinal herbs, known as yuyos, are mixed in a mortar and pestle and added to the water for taste or medicinal reasons. Tereré is most popular in Paraguay, Brazil, and the Litoral (northeast Argentina).
In the Rio de la Plata region, people often consume daily servings of mate. It is common for friends to convene to matear several times a week. In cold weather, the beverage is served hot and in warm weather the hot water is often substituted with lemonade, but not in Uruguay. Children often take mate with lemonade or milk, as well.
As Europeans often meet at a coffee shop, drinking mate is the impetus for gathering with friends in Argentina, southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Sharing mate is ritualistic and has its own set of rules. Usually, one person, the host or whoever brought the mate, prepares the drink and refills the gourd with water. In these three countries, the hot water can be contained in a vacuum flask, termo (appropriate for drinking mate in the outside) or garrafa térmica (Brazil), or in a pava (kettle), which only can be done at home.
The gourd is passed around, often in a circle, and each person finishes the gourd before giving it back to the brewer. The gourd (also called a mate) is passed in a clockwise order. Since mate can be rebrewed many times, the gourd is passed until the water runs out. When persons no longer want to take mate, they say gracias (thank you) to the brewer when returning the gourd to signify they do not want any more.
During the month of August, Paraguayans have a tradition of mixing mate with crushed leaves, stems, and flowers of the plant known as flor de Agosto (the flower of August, plants of the Senecio genus), which contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Modifying mate in this fashion is potentially toxic, as these alkaloids can cause a rare condition of the liver, veno-occlusive disease, which produces liver failure due to progressive occlusion of the small venous channels in the liver.
In South Africa, mate is not well known, but has been introduced to Stellenbosch by a student who sells it nationally. In the tiny hamlet of Groot Marico in the northwest province, mate was introduced to the local tourism office by the returning descendants of the Boers, who in 1902 had emigrated to Patagonia in Argentina after losing the Anglo Boer War. It is also commonly consumed in Lebanon, Syria and some other parts of the Middle East, as well as amongst communities of expatriate from the Southern Cone.
Chemical composition and properties
Yerba mate contains three xanthines: caffeine, theobromine and theophylline, the main one being caffeine. Caffeine content varies between 0.7% and 1.7% of dry weight (compared with 0.4– 9.3% for tea leaves, 2.5–7.6% in guarana, and up to 3.2% for ground coffee); theobromine content varies from 0.3% to 0.9%; theophylline is present in small quantities, or can be completely absent. A substance previously called “mateine” is a synonym for caffeine (like theine and guaranine).
Preliminary limited studies of mate have shown that the mate xanthine cocktail is different from other plants containing caffeine, most significantly in its effects on muscle tissue, as opposed to those on the central nervous system, which are similar to those of other natural stimulants. The three xanthines present in mate have been shown to have a relaxing effect on smooth muscle tissue, and a stimulating effect on myocardial (heart) tissue.
Yerba mate also contains elements such as potassium, magnesium and manganese.
As of 2011 there has not been any double-blind, randomized prospective clinical trial of mate drinking with respect to chronic disease. However, yerba does contain polyphenols, which may benefit the immune system, relieve allergies, reduce the risk of diabetes and hypoglycemia in mice, contain compounds that, when extracted from green tea burns more calories, acts as an appetite suppressant and weight loss tool, increases the supply of nutrients and oxygen to the heart, may reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, increases mental energy and focus, improves mood, and promotes a deeper sleep, however sleep may be affected in people who are sensitive to caffeine.
Some non-blinded studies have found mate consumption to be effective in lipid lowering. Studies in animals and humans have observed hypocholesterolemic effects of Ilex paraguariensis aqueous extracts. A single-blind controlled trial of 102 volunteers found that after 40 days of drinking 330 mL / day of mate tea (concentration 50g dry leaves / L water), people with already-healthy cholesterol levels experienced an 8.7% reduction in LDL, and hyperlipidemic individuals experienced an 8.6% reduction in LDL and a 4.4% increase in HDL, on average. Participants already on statin therapy saw a 13.1% reduction in LDL and a 6.2% increase in HDL. The authors thus concluded that drinking yerba mate infusions may reduce the risk for cardiovascular diseases.
Any hot consumption of mate is associated with oral cancer esophageal cancer, cancer of the larynx, and squamous cell of the head and neck. Studies show a correlation between temperature and likelihood of cancer, making it unclear how much a role mate itself plays as a carcinogen.
A study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer showed a limited correlation between oral cancer and the drinking of large quantities of “hot mate”. Smaller quantities (less than 1 liter daily) were found to increase risk only slightly, though alcohol and tobacco consumption had a synergistic effect on increasing oral, throat, and esophageal cancer. The study notes the possibility that increased risk could be credited to the high (near-boiling) temperatures at which the mate is consumed in its most traditional way, the chimarrão. The cellular damage caused by thermal stress could lead the esophagus and gastric epithelium to be metaplastic, adapting to the chronic injury. Then, mutations would lead to cellular dysplasia and to cancer. While the IARC study does not specify a specific temperature range for “hot mate”, it lists general (not “hot”) mate drinking separately, but does not possess the data to assess its effect. It also does not address, in comparison, any effect of consumption temperature with regard to coffee or tea.
Few data are available on the effects of yerba mate on weight in humans and further study may be warranted.
Mechanism of action
Research also shows that mate preparations can alter the concentration of members of the ecto-nucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase (E-NTPDase) family, resulting in an elevated level of extracellular ATP, ADP, and AMP. This was found with chronic ingestion (15 days) of an aqueous mate extract, and may lead to a novel mechanism for manipulation of vascular regenerative factors, i.e., treating heart disease.
In an investigation of mate antioxidant activity, there was a correlation found between content of caffeoyl-derivatives and antioxidant capacity (AOC). Amongst a group of Ilex species, Ilex paraguariensis antioxidant activity was the highest.
Yerba mate growing in the wild
Mate was first consumed by the indigenous Guaraní and also spread in the Tupí people that lived in southern Brazil and Paraguay, and became widespread with the European colonization. In the Spanish colony of Paraguay in the late 16th century, both Spanish settlers and indigenous Guaranís, who had, to some extent, before the Spanish arrival, consumed it. Mate consumption spread in the 17th century to the River Plate and from there to Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. This widespread consumption turned it into Paraguay’s main commodity above other wares, such as tobacco, and Indian labour was used to harvest wild stands.
In the mid 17th century, Jesuits managed to domesticate the plant and establish plantations in their Indian reductions in Misiones, Argentina, sparking severe competition with the Paraguayan harvesters of wild stands. After their expulsion in the 1770s, their plantations fell into decay, as did their domestication secrets. The industry continued to be of prime importance for the Paraguayan economy after independence, but development in benefit of the Paraguayan state halted after the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) that devastated the country both economically and demographically. Some regions with mate plantations in Paraguay became Argentinean territory.
Brazil then became the largest producer of mate. In Brazilian and Argentine projects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the plant was domesticated once again, opening the way for plantation systems. When Brazilian entrepreneurs turned their attention to coffee in the 1930s, Argentina, which had long been the prime consumer, took over as the largest producer, resurrecting the economy in Misiones Province, where the Jesuits had once had most of their plantations. For years, the status of largest producer shifted between Brazil and Argentina.
Now, Brazil is the largest producer, with 53%, followed by Argentina, 37% and Paraguay, 10%.
There is a Parque Historico do Mate, funded by the State of Parana, Brazil, to educate people on the sustainable harvesting methods needed to maintain the integrity and vitality of the oldest wild forests of mate in the world.
The name given to the plant in Guaraní, language of the indigenous people who first cultivated and enjoyed mate, is ka’a, which has the same meaning as “herb”. Congonha, in Portuguese, is derived from the Tupi expression, meaning something like “what keeps us alive”, but a term rarely used nowadays. Mate is from the Quechua mati, a word that means container for a drink, infusion of an herb, as well as gourd. The word mate is used in both, Portuguese and Spanish languages.
The pronunciation of yerba mate in Spanish is [ˈʝe̞rβ̞ä ˈmäte̞] The accent on the word is on the first syllable, not the second as might be implied by the variant spelling “maté”. The word hierba is Spanish for “herb”; yerba is a variant spelling of it which was quite common in Argentina. (Nowadays in Argentina “yerba” refers exclusively to the “yerba mate” plant.) Yerba mate, therefore, originally translated literally as the “gourd herb”, i.e. the herb one drinks from a gourd.
The (Brazilian) Portuguese name is either erva-mate [ˈɛʁvɐ ˈmätʃi] (also pronounced [ˈɛrvɐ ˈmäte] or [ˈɛɾvɐ ˈmätɪ] in some regions), the most used term, or rarely “congonha” [kõˈɡõȷ̃ɐ], from Old Tupi kõ’gõi, which means “what sustains the being”. It is also used to prepare the drinks chimarrão (hot), tereré (cold) or chá mate (hot or cold). While the chá mate (tea) is made with the toasted leaves, the other drinks are made with green leaves, and are very popular in the south of the country and Mato Grosso. Most people colloquially address both the plant and the beverage simply by the word mate.
Both the spellings “mate” and “maté” are used in English, but the latter spelling is never used in Spanish where it means “I killed” as opposed to “gourd”. There are no variation of spellings in Spanish. The addition of the acute accent over the final “e” was likely added as a hypercorrection, indicating that the word and its pronunciation are distinct from the common English word “mate“.