When I opened The Good Leaf on Lark Street, I knew I intended to serve traditional yerba mate (I can't add an accent mark, so just know it's pronounced mah tay, not mate like first mate), but had no idea how popular it would be. It is really popular! So here's a little about yerba mate; interesting stuff, but please read on to be aware of data regarding mate and potential cancer risk.
Yerba Mate is a species of the holly plant native to South America. Yerba means herb and mate means gourd (or something like that). Yerba mate leaves are infused to yield an energizing beverage that many people enjoy as an alternative to coffee. It is traditionally consumed in a hollowed out gourd called a mate, with a filter straw called a bombilla.
There are two basic types of mate - green and roasted. Roasted Mate tends to have a smoother and more mellow flavor, and green mate is a bit sharper and bitter. In my shop, they're equally popular. Mate is often blended with other herbs and flavors, and I create custom mate blends for many of my customers. With the increase in popularity of flavored teas, there has also been interest in flavored mates, and my mate decadence, which is a mate with chocolate and caramel flavor has been hard to keep in stock.
Evidently, yerba mate is consumed everywhere and all the time in many South American countries. Though I haven't traveled there myself to experience this first hand, I heard that it's not uncommon for people to carry around their mates wherever they go. I have also heard that there are mate stands all over the place for people to refresh their mate. Evidently it is common to drink mate with friends, passing the mate from guest to guest, but many people drink it on their own all day long.
Preparing Yerba Mate
In traditional mate preparation, you fill your gourd about 1/3 to 1/2 way with mate, some cool water is initially poured into the gourd, followed by warm water. Like green tea, brewing in boiling water may cause yerba mate to become bitter, and may even be associated with increased cancer risk. After allowing some time for the herb to infuse the water, the infusion is consumed and the gourd refilled. A single gourd is often shared by several friends, with each refill being passed to the next participant. Yerba Mate may be consumed warm or cold, and may be shared or consumed alone.
Mate may also be prepared as you would prepare any tea. This method of prep is referred to as mate cocida. For mate cocida preparation, infuse 1 teaspoon per 6-8 ounce cup in steaming water as long as desired.
Yerba Mate and Caffeine
Yerba mate contains mateine, and in reviewing the research I can't come to a confident conclusion as to whether or not mateine is chemicaly similar or identical to caffeine, or whether it is a different compound. There appears to be a heated debate which has gone on for decades. In any case, the experience of mate is energizing yet relaxing in a way, and I have consumed a good amount of it in the past few years, so I can attest to my favorite part of the mate buzz - no crash. Therefore as far as I'm concerned, either mateine is a different substance than caffeine, or other elements of the yerba mate plant work alongside the caffeine to alter the way it affects the body, and it doesn't really matter to me if it's really the same thing as caffeine or not.
Yerba Mate and Cancer
There is also heated debate as to the health benefits of mate that I have to share with you. Some research suggests that mate offers significant health benefits, many believe it is a weight loss aid, but other research suggests that frequent mate consumption may be associated with increased occurrence of various cancers, especially esophageal. Here's a link to an article that I believe summed it up well: http://www.caring4cancer.com/go/cancer/nutrition/questions This review of the literature suggests that the mate risks are not related to water temperature, but may be more related to the quantity of mate consumed. Their conclusions would suggest that mate cocida preparation is more prudent than traditional gourd preparation.
On the other hand, other data suggest that yerba mate may help fight cancer. Such reports have typically been found in the alternative medicine literature, where reports of yerba mate's myriad health benefits proliferate. Additionally, the Yerba Mate Association of the Americas provides information about the health benefits of mate, suggesting mate offers greater anti-oxidant benefit than coffee or green tea, and does address the mate/cancer link by attributing those findings to other factors such as smoking in the mate drinking population, and consuming hot mate through a metal straw causing scalding of the throat. Here's that link: http://www.yerbamateassociation.org/index.php?p=h_benefits&id=45
Finally, the FDA classifies Yerba Mate as GRAS (generally recognized as safe), for what that's worth.
Once agin, I can't come to any conclusions with confidence, but I can't be flip about the data on mate and cancer the way I am about mate and caffeine. I think it is something that you need to be aware of and take into consideration when you choose whether or not to drink mate, and how to prepare it.
At the end of the day
So the bottom line appears to be, mate is popular, mate is energizing and offers a pleasant buzz that is similar to a caffeine buzz, but without side effects. Mate is fun and enjoyable, and mate may offer some health benefits but regular consumption of traditionally prepared yerba mate may be associated with certain cancers. I find these data of concern, but not enough to remove mate from my tea menu. I do, however, plan to make this information available to customers who purchase mate paraphernalia. You need to make your own decision about mate; for me, I choose to prepare my mate as mate cocida, and as with most other substances, I find moderation to be a good choice, and I do and will continue to enjoy mate from time to time.