You Should Drink Yerba Mate

It’s 105 degrees (90 in the shade), and you’ve got no escape. You feel good, though. Why? Because you’re surrounded by a few good friends, good conversation, and ice-cold, minty goodness being passed around.

yerba mate terere

Un Rico Tereré!

This delicious beverage of summer is called “tereré” by the locals here in Paraguay. Tereré is what they call yerba mate when “taken” with cold water.

However, I realize many of you are in a place that is quite the opposite of summer, so let me paint a different picture.

It’s 40 degrees (42 inside), and you’ve got no escape. You feel good, though. Why? Because you’re surrounded by a few good friends, good conversation, and hot, steamy minty goodness being passed around. You take a bit of extra time with your turn, holding the guampa a little longer to warm your hands as you sip the tea through the bombilla before passing it back to the server.

*This* delicious beverage of winter is called “mate” (mah-tay) by the locals here in Paraguay. There’s nothing quite like a hot guampa of mate on a cold day to warm you up inside.

I first discovered it in 2005 when I took a mission trip to Brazil. My Brazilian friend was explaining to me in Portuguese (I spoke Spanish) that it’s an “herb” or “grass” that you drink that makes you silly. At least that’s the way I understood it. What he was trying to get across was that it has caffeine.

It looks like pot, but it’s good for you!

There’s a reason Tim Ferriss says it’s the best beverage in the world (although its reach is far, far beyond Buenos Aires). He even credits it for being able to finish his book.

Yerba mate has a lot of health benefits. It’s no wonder that all the health food stores are starting to carry it. According to the resources I’ve found, there have been studies to show that drinking yerba mate helps with:

  • limiting fat gain or aiding weight loss
  • immune system stimulation
  • lowering your cholesterol
  • fighting cancer

One thing that has impressed me about the various Paraguayans I’ve met, specifically the ones from the country, is that the old people are so fit and healthy for their age. Part of it is probably that they’re more active than us sedentary North Americans (you have to walk everywhere). But they will tell you part of the secret is the yerba mate they drink two to three times a day.

But what’s that weird thing you have a picture of?

I promise it’s not some kind of drug paraphernalia! It looks incriminating, I understand, but only to folks in the US! Down here it’s more common – literally – than coffee is in the US.

Yerba mate is traditionally drunk in a dried gourd or a wooden cup called a guampa. The lose tea leaves are placed into the guampa, and you drink it through a filtered straw called a bombilla (bom-bee-ya).

It’s an extremely social practice. Yerba mate is “taken” among friends and conversation. Each one drinks the water in the gourd and passes it back to the server for the next guy. It’s actually occasionally depressing for me when I drink it myself at home in the US, since none of my American friends like it.

Where can I find it?

I realize not everyone can take a trip to South America to stock up on this versatile, super-healthy beverage, but the good news is you *can* find it in the US. You can get it at some of the higher end grocery stores, like Whole Foods, but you’ll pay a premium. I found a site called ma-tea.com that sells the brands I recognize, and I’ll also give Aviva a try because their blends sound amazing. You might even find some in a local tea shop.

Your best bet *by far*, however, is going to be finding a Latin market in your town. I would look there first, and if you can’t find any I’d try ma-tea.com. Whole Foods and the like are your last resort. ;)

[Update: I found out you can also buy yerba mate on Amazon! I recommend Cruz de Malta or Taragui for price and taste.]

One word of caution

Just because yerba mate is awesome and healthy doesn’t mean you should overdo it. Don’t make all your liquid intake in a day be from this tea. Just like you wouldn’t overdo it on coffee or diet soda if you were trying to be reasonable. Remember MED. More is not always better. It’ll affect your sleep for sure.

A specific word to women: if you’re pregnant or nursing, it’s probably better to stay away for now. I asked my Paraguayan wife about it, and she said it’s not good for babies.

I’m really excited to be able to share this drink I love with you all, and I hope you get as fond of it as I do. Maybe one day if we do a meet up we can sit around with my setup and drink some together!

Have you had any yerba mate yet? How did you like it? How did you drink it? Where do you buy your yerba? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

-j

Resources:
Most of my research was done first hand in Paraguay. For some of the specific content, check out the Yerba Mate wiki page or yerba-mate.com

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Comments

  1. I’m dying to try this now…the cold version sounds better than the warm version though, especially if it’s minty…there is a gourmet tea shop in the mall near me, wonder if they sell it there? I’ll be checking soon!

  2. I’m just starting to get hooked on the stuff. I like it as either ice tea or hot tea. Trader Joe’s has it at a reasonable price. In fact I just put four bags in my pantry. Good stuff!

    • Thanks for that tip, Dale. I think we might have a Trader Joe’s in Richmond; I’ll have to check it out!

      My wife and I are leaving Paraguay tomorrow and I just got back from stocking up. I think we’ll be good until April. :)

      -j

  3. Minty sounds strange to me.

    I’m in Ecuador, and the truth is that as a kid I was addicted to mate. Yes. Considering that my Mom never added milk or sugar (a common enough practice, I’ve heard) and we’d only have it straight up, it’s kind of weird that the five year old me could take it where me now shudders at the thought. It’s been a couple of years, though, so I might give it another go.

    • Jamie, I started drinking it just straight. The yerba comun doesn’t have anything added, but I only like that with cocido. It’s really delicious with mint in it, especially cold. They don’t add sugar in Paraguay, but in Argentina they do (to their mate, the hot stuff). They also use juice instead of water for their cold. I like mine with the mint blend and ice cold. For hot I *love* the brand Taragui and their orange rind blend.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      -j

  4. I was just flipping through the book and saw that Tim mentions yerba mate on page 105, to increase the speed of gastric emptying for binge days. Something you might want to add to the benefits.

    • Boy ain’t that the truth! Actually they almost ALWAYS drink mate here before lunch. And especially before the giant barbecues that are famous down here. ;)

      -j

  5. I like to drink it straight. I think pre-Slow Carb it might’ve been too bitter that way, but after 2 months on the diet, I’ve lost my taste for sugar. I think I’ll try it iced now. Thanks for the tip.

  6. I love this stuff hot with a little milk and honey. And I also put some lemon juice in it for the first time today, and it was REALLY good! I got introduced by my Paraguayan girlfriend. (Am american, but moving to Paraguay in about a week and a half)

    Just made a Blog like 5 minutes ago where i will post my experiences. (apparently you have to have a website to post comments, and been meaning to make one anyway, just been lazy :P)

    • Steven, that’s interesting about having to have a website to comment. I’ll check that out.

      Anyway, it’s awesome having a Paraguayan SO. :) I’ll be subscribing to your blog. My heart is still down there, even though my wife is here. We both are anxious to go back. Saludos!

      -j

  7. Hi Jason,

    I’ve recently found the 4 Hour Body and have been looking up various things to do with the slow carb diet amongst other things. I have a question though that I can not find the answer to is that there are many websites that say that Yerba Mate is linked with an increase in incidence of lung and mouth cancer and that it’s carcinogenic? This goes against your suggestion that it is actually used for fighting cancer?

    I can’t find any definitive evidence either way that is definitive, but I’m reluctant to take the risk, cancer is obviously pretty major. Just wondering if you or any of your readers has any links or advice on this?

    Thanks

    Stefanie
    Stefanie recently posted..Hello world!

    • Hi Stefanie, thanks for your question. I’ll start it by saying I’m not a clinical researcher and I haven’t done hours of extensive research on the subject. :) So take my answer how you will.

      South Americans have been drinking yerba mate for hundreds of years, and among the Paraguayans I lived, no one talked about cancer in relation to yerba with one exception. I was told that some kinds of yerba, when they’re burned during the drying process, can have some level of carcinogen in it, much like charring a piece of meat. According to the studies I came across, much of the cancer correlated to the temperature of the water used to drink mate.

      I can’t say the studies you’ll find are wrong, but I can say they’re mostly inconclusive. Unless they were able to find people who didn’t drink or smoke and were able to specifically separate out yerba mate as the cause of the cancers, I wouldn’t put much stock in their findings.

      When you look at the components of the leaves themselves, they even have antioxidants. So on one hand people will say it causes cancer, and on the other they’ll say it helps prevent cancer.

      Again, my “research” is highly anecdotal. While in the US I can name many people I know who have died from cancer due to smoking, no one I know in Paraguay can name anyone who has died of cancer from drinking yerba. They do it faithfully and without hesitation, and the Paraguayans who drink it the most (the ones in the countryside) seem to live the longest!

      I’d put yerba mate in the same boat as I put coffee: it’s awesome to enjoy every day, but I’m not going to drink cups and cups of it all day. Most of the reason for that is the caffeine levels. We’ve got much better chances of getting esophageal cancer from pollution, I think. :)

      I have a friend in Paraguay who is pretty health conscious and would definitely be hep to this type of thing if there was a real link. I’ll get in touch with him to see if he has anything to say (he even occasionally posts here, so maybe I’ll get him to chime in).

      Thanks again!
      -j

      [Edit: I found this article that has a really good back and forth in the comments: The yerba mate industry responds]

  8. Christopher says:

    I’m drinking some right now. I make it in a ceramic cup, as the guamba is not available here. At Whole Foods, there is a store brand available. It is packed in tea bags with a little mint mixed in. Good hot or cold. One may sweeten it, if necessary. I like mine au naturel. Just let the hot water run to raise the heat & pour it over a teabag. In a few minutes, it’s ready to drink.

    • I haven’t tried any yerba in tea bags, Christopher, but I’ll often drink it in a cup as well. I have a bombilla that I brought back from Paraguay that works pretty well. But I’m with you. I like mine “au natural”. None of this sweetener business! :)

      -j

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