All about Mate Tea

Yerba mate in calabash and wooden box of dry herb.
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Do you know mate? No, it’s not some new Australian dish! Mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is a traditional tea-like beverage, popular and traditional in South American countries including Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, southern Chile, eastern Bolivia and southern Brazil. But now, mate is gaining worldwide popularity and rapidly penetrating global markets including the United States. As an Argentinean, seeing mate products at the FNCE 2012 expo was a nice surprise!

But what exactly is it?

Mate is an infusion drink made by brewing the dried leaves of the yerba mate tree (Ilex Paraguarensis). In South America, mate is typically drunk out of a dried gourd using a metal straw with a strainer called a bombilla. To make the drink, about two ounces of dry leaves are packed into the bombilla, hot water is poured in to steep, and the drink is enjoyed. More water is added multiple times until as much as half to one full liter of water has passed over the leaves.

Argentinean Mate-ing Ceremony

Visitors to Argentina are often surprised by how we drink mate. Traditionally, mate is shared with people you know: close friends and family. In a gathering, we all drink from the same mate gourd and share the same straw!

There’s even a whole ceremony to the drink. One person — the cebador —prepares the mate, fills the gourd, and passes it to the drinker to his or her right. That person drinks down the contents and passes the empty mate gourd back to the cebador. If the person says “Thank you” at that moment, it means that he or she doesn’t want more. Then, the cebador prepares mate for the next person. This is repeated for each of the participants, following a circular pattern.

In Argentina, while there are a few “mate bars” in the capital city of Buenos Aires, this is not a drink you’ll find in a cafe or restaurant. Instead, it is more commonly enjoyed at home, and sometimes among colleagues at work. Mate is not only about unique flavor, it also represents a ritual of friendship and sharing.

While the early adopters in the U.S. typically buy mate in individual tea bags from health food stores, as cold beverages or as an ingredient in dietary supplements, Argentineans call mate made out of bags mate cocido.

What Does Mate Tea Taste Like?

It is difficult to explain the flavor, because mate is unique. Prepared in the traditional way, it’s kind of bitter (you can add a little sugar, though) and has a roasted, smoky aroma that lightens up after the gourd has been refilled a few times. You must try it whenever you have the chance! If you know someone from Argentina or Uruguay ask him or her to show you the technique.

Is Mate Tea Healthy?

Part of mate’s moment of popularity stems from its health claims. Scientific evidence is contradictory, though. On one hand, some epidemiologic studies reported an association between mate consumption and increased risk of oral, oropharyngeal, esophageal, laryngeal and bladder cancer. On the other hand, there are good studies reporting anticancer effects — even higher than green tea!

Besides being antioxidant-rich, there is some evidence that mate tea lowers cholesterol, is a central nervous system stimulant and a good diuretic and choleretic. It’s been suggested that also benefits cardiovascular health and obesity management. Numerous active phytochemicals have been identified in mate tea to support these claims. Among them, are the polyphenols (chlorogenic acid) and xanthines (caffeine and theobromine), followed by purine alkaloids, flavonoids, amino acids, minerals (phosphorus, iron and calcium) and vitamins (C, B1 and B2). Lastly, mate has also been shown to be protective against some types of liver cancer.

More investigation needs to be done about the safety and benefits of mate. In the meantime, drinking mate in moderation shouldn’t be harmful. I drink mate every day — it’s my morning boost!

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Romina Barritta de Defranchi
Romina Barritta, DTR, is a dietitian based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She runs GlobalDietitians.com, a networking site for food and nutrition professionals from around the world. She is Board member of the International Affiliate of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (IAAND). Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.