The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Yerba mate

Yerba maté
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Aquifoliales
Family: Aquifoliaceae
Genus: Ilex
Species: paraguariensis
Binomial name
Ilex paraguariensis A. St. Hil.

Yerba mate (pronounced "YARE-ba MAH-tay", IPA ), Ilex paraguariensis, or yerba maté, hierba mate, or erva mate in Portuguese, sometimes called simply "yerba", is a shrub in the holly family Aquifoliaceae, native to South America, used as a tea. "Mate" is the preferred spelling, but it is sometimes spelled "maté" or even "matte", a sort of hypercorrection intended to inform readers they are looking at a two syllable word.

The plant is grown mainly in South America, more specifically in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and South Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná). The Guarani are reputed to be the first people who cultivated the plant; the first Europeans doing this were Jesuit missionaries, who spread the drinking habit as far as Ecuador.

Mate drinking

Like with other teas, yerba mate leaves are dried, chopped, and ground into a powderous mixture. Unlike other teas, mate is traditionally sipped from a dried and carefully-carved hollow gourd from the Lagenaria Vulgaris plant, through a special metal straw (traditionally silver) called a bombilla (bom-BEE-ya or bom-BEE-zha in Argentinian and Uruguayan pronunciation — IPA /bom'bija/ or /bom'biʒa/). "Bombilla" means, literally, "little pump" or "straw" in Spanish. The bombilla acts as both a straw and sieve. The submerged end is flared, with small holes or slots that allow the tea in, but block the chunky matter that makes up much of the mixture. A modern bombilla design uses a straight tube with holes, or spring sleeve to act as a sieve.

After placing an abundant amount of yerba in the gourd (1/2 gourd or more), very hot water (typically around 80 degrees Celsius and never boiling) is added.

The drink has a pungent taste like a cross between green tea and coffee, and sugar or honey may be added if desired (becoming "mate dulce", sweet mate).

Natural gourds are used, traditionally, though wood vessels and gourd-shaped ones, made of ceramic or metal (stainless steel or even silver) are also common. Gourds are commonly decorated with silver, sporting decorative or heraldic designs with floral motifs.

Both the wood ones and the gourds require a special treatment (called curing) to get a better taste before being used for the first time. Typically, to cure a gourd, the herb is added and hot water is poured in the gourd. The mixture is left to sit overnight and the water is topped off periodically through the following 24 hours as the gourd absorbs the water.

In Uruguay the traditional mate is usually big and has a large hole. In Argentina (especially in the capital, Buenos Aires) the mate is small and has a small hole, and people usually add sugar for flavor.

Mate is traditionally drunk in a particular social setting, such as family gatherings or with friends. One individual (known in Spanish as the cebador) assumes the task of server. This person typically fills the gourd and drinks its contents completely. The server subsequently refills the gourd and passes it to the next drinker who likewise drinks it all. The ritual proceeds around the circle in this fashion until the flavor weakens, typically after the gourd has been filled about ten times or more depending on the mate you use. You never say "thanks" when the "cebador" gives you the mate, in "mate drinking language", "thanks" means that the mate you accept will be the last one you will drink. In this instance, saying "thanks" means "thanks I had enough".

In Uruguay it is not uncommon to see people walking around the streets toting a mate and a thermos with hot water. There is even a national law that prohibits drinking mate while driving, because it caused many accidents of people getting burned with hot water while driving.

Not only you can drink it with hot water, which is called, in Brazil, chimarrão, or with cold water or lemonade called tereré. Nowadays, mate is also toasted and prepared in a similar manner to black tea. You can easily find "tea bags" and, in Brazil, prepacked "iced tea" packages and bottles. Each one of these drinks require a different preparation of the plant.

Chemical composition and properties

Mate contains xanthines, which are alkaloids in the same family as caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine, well-known stimulants also found in coffee and chocolate. Mate also contains other elements, such as Potassium, Magnesium and Manganese [1].

Sellers of mate products often claim that the primary active xanthine in mate is "mateine", which they say is similar to caffeine but with fewer of its negative effects; some mate products are marketed as "caffeine-free" alternatives to traditional coffee and tea. However, they are wrong; mateine is simply another name, like guaranine, for caffeine.

Researchers at Florida International University in Miami have found that yerba mate does contain caffeine, but some people seem to tolerate it better than coffee or tea.

From reports of personal experience with mate, its physiological effects are similar to yet distinct from more widespread caffeinated beverages like coffee or tea. Users report a mental state of wakefulness, focus and alertness reminiscent of most stimulants, but often remark on mate's unique lack of the negative effects typically created by other such compounds, such as anxiety, diarrhea, "jitteriness," and heart palpitations.

Reasons for mate's unique physiological attributes are beginning to emerge in scientific research. Studies of mate, though very limited, have shown prelimary evidence 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. Mate has been shown to have a relaxing effect on smooth muscle tissue, and a stimulating effect on myocardial (heart) tissue, though these effects are anecdotally claimed to be of a lesser degree than those of caffeine. Additionally, many users report that drinking yerba mate does not prevent them from being able to fall asleep, as is often the case with some more common stimulating beverages, while still enhancing their energy and ability to remain awake at will.

There have been numerous epidemiologic studies on the association between mate-drinking and cancer in humans. There is limited evidence that drinking hot mate may cause esophageal cancer in humans. On the other hand, in-vivo and in-vitro studies are showing yerba mate to exhibit significant cancer-fighting activity. Researchers at the University of Illinois (2005) found yerba mate to be "rich in phenolic constituents" and can "inhibit oral cancer cell proliferation."

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Last updated: 08-19-2005 00:26:54