Yerba Mate: All of the Caffeine, None of the Jitters

A recent study at the University of Illinois found when human colon cancer cells become exposed to bioactive compounds present in just one cup of yerba mate tea, those cancer cells die. These tea compounds also reduced inflammation.

“Put simply, the cancer cell self-destructs because its DNA has been damaged,” said Elvira de Mejia, associate professor of food chemistry and food toxicology at the University of Illinois.

These findings could benefit all types of cancer. Because it helps to absorb and metabolize caffeine-related compounds, however, yerba mate’s anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits are probably most useful for your colon.

You might be asking “Yerba what?

It’s pronounced “mah-tay.” Yerba mate has long been a staple in South America, which regards this potent tea for its medicinal and social qualities.

Much like you might gather with friends at Starbucks, people in Argentina, southern Brazil, and Uruguay gather to drink yerba mate. In fact, it’s a ritual with its own set of rules.

Traditionally, the host or person who brings the mate prepares the drink and refills the gourd with water. In these three countries, they keep hot (never boiling) water for yerba mate in a vacuum flask, a pava (kettle), or in Brazil, a garrafa térmica (thermos).

Yerba mate doesn’t quite get this kind of love in North America. However, I hope more people get turned on to this invigorating, healthy drink, which you can find in Target and Whole Foods.

I’ve long been a fan of yerba mate, which is sometimes higher in antioxidants than green tea thanks to its cholorogenic acid.

Interestingly, yerba mate sometimes packs more caffeine than coffee, but somehow the antioxidants and caffeine work synergistically and don’t give people jitters like a grande Starbucks dark roast might.

Other beneficial stimulants in yerba mate include xanthines, theophylline, and theobromine. You may have heard of that last one, also found in dark chocolate.

These synergistic compounds create a sharp, focused, alert feeling without coffee’s negative effects.

Yerba mate also comes loaded with the minerals potassium, zinc, and magnesium. And one cup offers 30% of the B vitamin niacin. Not bad.

Among its other benefits, yerba mate can raise your metabolism, help burn fat, and promote regular bowel movements. Hey, if this were a supplement, we’d be lined up around the corner to buy it!

Yerba mate has a slightly grassy taste that might take some getting used to. You want the water to be hot but not boiling: yerba mate becomes very bitter in too-hot water. Adding a little stevia and coconut milk will make mate more drinkable for newcomers.

You can find yerba mate as loose-leaf tea or in tea bags. Some commercial brands come blended with peppermint or citrus, which makes them more palatable. If you’re curious about trying it, you might want to start with one of these.

Yerba mate makes a great alternative if you need to give up coffee for, say, a detox, but still need that morning caffeine kick. If you’re trying it for the first time, let me know your thoughts.




  1. Jane Ragsdale

    I lived in Argentina 35 years ago and learned to love mate. It used to be impossible to find here in the US, but thankfully that is no longer so.
    I never knew the health benefits (although my Argentine friends swore it was the nectar of the gods). I had only heard it said it had more caffeine than coffee. I’m thrilled to read your piece and especially appreciate your hint of the ritualistic attitude South Americans hold toward serving and drinking it.

  2. Andrew

    I just started drinking it this year and love it! I don’t like coffee jitters, and I enjoy the focused feeling I get when drinking it.

  3. George

    I make it daily every night, though the boiling water information was new to me, thank you Dr. Brungus!!

  4. Bev

    A friend turned me onto yerba mate 7 years ago and told me it was an acquired taste. I started out with the smokey flavor of yerba mate but some years later found its also made in a green form. I drink it every morning instead of coffee with a lemon wedge. My favorite brand has a toucan on the box and is by Mate Factor Fresh Green Organic Yerba Mate. Much easier to drink then the smokey flavored kind! They sell it on Amazon and in most HF stores.

  5. Ellen

    Great article. It might be hard for some to start drinking mate, because the taste is like nothing else. Those are some good suggestions. I would add that I’ve always liked it with sugar a lot more, although it might be “frowned upon”. Lemon peels also add a wonderful taste!

  6. China Mike

    I love Yerba Mate. I started drinking it some time back…about a year? Found it accidentally when I went to a local vegan market to find something other than tea to mix with water. To my surprise I fell in love at the first sip. What I really like though, that I think most Americans are unaware of is, you can COLD BREW it within 10 minutes! I have never had it hot. I make it a gallon at a time (1/2 cup Yerba Mate to 1/2 gallon) and within 10-12 minutes I have a light greenish brown, “grassy” tasting drink. I add a bit of sugar and of course, some lemon juice.
    One thing I noticed at the Mayo Clinic site (bunch of anal retentive MDs there if you ask me!) is that the message is “drink with caution” and some BS about carcinogens. Now let’s see–the ENTIRE country of Argentina drinks it–it actually IS their national drink! Also, don’t be mislead by the caffeine issue. As stated here, it’s less than that of coffee, and there are different types of caffeine, and the different types affect a person differently as well. Coffee is quicker to the system, tea is more “to the mind” if you understand me, and chocolate, well it is so insignificant as to be unnoticeable. Yerba has all three types, so it sort of falls in the middle. My advise is; don’t OVERBREW IT, as it can be too strong. Try my cold brew method!