The History of Yerba Maté

Yerba Maté, known scientifically as Ilex Paraguariensis, belongs to the Ilex genus of the holly family and is an evergreen species. It has a fascinating history. It is believed to have been originally discovered and used by the ancient Guarani natives (see The Legend of Yerba Maté) residing in Paraguay and Northern Argentina. They believed it significantly improved their health and wellbeing, giving them increased energy and stamina while keeping them mentally alert. Yerba Maté is now the national drink in Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay and is heavily consumed in Brazil, Peru and Chile. Due to its extraordinary health benefits, it is rapidly becoming a favored beverage in the U.S. and Europe. It is often added to various herbal medications by South Americans, who believe it activates and enhances the benefits of the medicines.

Yerba Maté trees may reach up to 20 meters in height if allowed to grow without harvesting the leaves, which is performed by pruning the branches. Originally, it grew wild in the rainforests of South America. Now, however, it is grown on large plantations and is a primary contributor to the economy of these countries, both for exportation and internal consumption. It has been reported that between 75-80% of the men and between 79-82% of the women in the city of Montevideo drink maté daily. The percentages are even higher in the interior of the country. It is reported that 8 out of 10 Uruguayans drink maté daily. The statistics are probably similar for Paraguay and Argentina. Both men and women carry their maté drink and maté making paraphernalia (cup or gourd, bombilla, and a two-quart to one gallon container of hot water) with them wherever they go, even while walking down the street, driving a car or truck or just sitting and visiting.

The harvested leaves must be immediately dried, ground and then cured for one to two years, which develops the aroma and the taste, which is quite bitter. The traditional way of drinking maté is most interesting and very unique. A gourd, called a maté, is filled with the ground leaves and small stems (called the yerba), and then hot water is added. After a few minutes of steeping, the brew is sipped through a bombilla, which is a metal, straw-like devise with a filter on the end that is placed into the beverage. Because the maté is filled with yerba, the bombilla will hold only a very small amount of water, providing only a few swallows of a very strong brew. When the cup is empty, it is refilled over and over again until there is no taste left. The “spent” yerba is then discarded, unusually by dumping it around growing plants or in gardens. It is highly beneficial for plants of all species.

An ancient maté drinking ritual has persisted to this day. Groups of people, usually men, will sit in a circle and drink maté and talk for hours. The person who makes the brew will take the first sip through the bombilla and then pass the maté to the person sitting to his left, who will take a sip and then pass it on, always in a clockwise rotation. It was believed that this practice made everyone in the circle equal. Everyone drank the same beverage from the same maté through the same bombilla. The ritual is very similar to the ancient ritual of smoking the peace pipe among the Native Americans. Interestingly, drinking maté seems to have always had its loyal advocates and its determined detractors.

When the Spanish conquistadores conquered the Guarani and neighboring tribes, it is reported that they immediately noticed the physical vigor and excellent health of the natives, including their good character and natural happiness. The natives told the Spaniards that the secret of their many good qualities was because they drank Yerba Maté daily. They explained that their God (see The Legend of Yerba Maté) had granted their ancestors the tree as a special gift and reward for their righteousness, and that drinking the beverage assured them health and vigor. Upon hearing the story, the Catholic priests declared that it had come from a pagan god and therefore the devil, and prohibited the consumption of Yerba Maté by the natives, the penalty being excommunication. The natives, of course, ignored the ban, which was revoked after a short time lest the priests lose their new converts.

Then a priest claimed Yerba Maté was an aphrodisiac, and therefore contrary to the principles of the Church. When the consumption increased, he declared it to be a mortal sin. The natives could not have cared less and continued their consumption of maté. With increasing demand for the beverage, the Spaniards realized that they could make fortunes by controlling its production and sale. The natives were put into slavery and required to work the plantations to the benefit of their conquerors. They were cruelly exploited by the Spaniards, who professed to be their beneficiaries, and were required to build roads to transport the new “green gold” for exportation to nearby countries and to Spain. The Jesuits in Paraguay, who became extremely wealthy from the labors forced upon the slaves, determined that maté had not been revealed to the natives by a pagan god but by the God of the Christians, and so its consumption was encouraged.

The drinking of maté has gone from being a beverage given by God as a reward for righteousness, to an abominable and dirty vice, and finally to a renowned health beverage, recommended by students, athletes and food scientists throughout the world. However, detractors are again rising up, claiming that the beverage is harmful. These detractors often represent competitive beverage companies and fear that maté will reduce their market share. Other detractors are people who read or hear of a scientific study, but do not have access to the entire study, and are misinformed. They do no understand the published conclusion, nor have access to later studies that disprove the former one.

According to scientific research, Yerba Maté leaves contain 250 nutrients, of which 196 have been identified. Mature leaves are generally from 8 to 10 centimeters in length and 3 to 4 centimeters in width. Numerous studies have been published showing that maté is extraordinarily beneficial to humans. According to the Industry Science Journal (2/16/11), this includes 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids and 11 polyphenols. It is also high in antioxidants. A study performed at the University of Montreal in Canada and published in 1995 stated that “Low density liprotein (LDL cholesterol) oxidation is inhibited by extracts of Ilex Paraguariensis.” The study was performed because “considerable interest is given to the approach of protecting LDL from oxidation as a means of inhibiting the atherosclerotic process.” The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois verified this conclusion and reported on the 2004 American Chemical Society’s website that “the aqueous extract of maté can reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in vivo and protect DNA oxidation.”

Studies performed during the last 30 years are informative. They suggest that “maté is basically an energizing beverage; it decreases fatigue, and enhances both mental and physical activity” (González Torres, 1992). “In Paraguay, this infusion is also used for weight loss” (Grupa, 1995’ G. Torres, 1992). “It is also recognized as a diuretic and a slow purgative” (Alonso et al., 1992). “Maté is employed as a stimulant of the central nervous system, diuretic, glycogenolytic, lipolytic (Simoes et al., 1986; Alonso et al., 1992; Toursarkissian, 1980; G. Torres, 1992) and for the treatment of obesity” (Vanaclocha, 1999; Canigueral et al., 1998). “Due to its antimicrobial activity against microorganisms, daily consumption of maté was proposed for the prevention of cavities” (Kubo et al., 1993). Another study determined that extracts of maté “could contribute to increase the antioxidant defense of an organism against free radical attack” (Schinella et al., 2000).

The Commission E of the German Health Ministry, the official authority for the regulation of German phytopharmaceuticals or phytomedicine, published a monograph about maté suggesting its use to help overcome physical and psychic fatigue, and mentioned that it is also beneficial in helping to treat obesity. Today, maté is included in numerous medications in Spain, France, Germany, Hungary and Australia, among other countries.

Studies published a few years ago suggested that maté may be a cause of esophageal cancer. However, as stated in the studies, all of the subjects with cancer were also heavy smokers of black tobacco and heavy drinkers of alcohol, both of which are known to be the “most important risk factors for upper aerodigestive tract cancers” (Pintos et al., 1994). Further, they drank their maté very hot and the ingestion of very hot beverages and foods has been a known cause of esophageal cancer for decades. Commenting on these studies, Pub Med (2004) wrote that the “amount and duration of cold or hot maté drinking were not associated with esophageal cancer risk. However, temperature at which maté was drunk was significantly associated with risk. As compared to drinkers of warm or hot maté, drinkers of very hot maté had an increased risk for esophageal cancer even after adjusting for the strong effects of alcohol and tobacco consumption. This effect seemed to be mainly due to the temperature at which maté was drunk.” Maté should be prepared with very hot water but always allowed to cool to a comfortable temperature before it is consumed.

Dozens of other studies have also been published, all attesting to the safety and health benefits of Yerba Maté. Clearly, modern science has proven the ancient Guarani and other natives of South America to have been correct. Yerba Maté is an extraordinarily health generating beverage, to be enjoyed by all. James May recommends that stevia leaves always be added to Yerba Maté, both to significantly enhance the flavor as well as the nutrient content. Plain Yerba Maté is bitter, but with just the right amount of stevia it is mildly sweet and delicious to the taste. He has consumed this blend as a strong beverage, at just the right temperature, since 1982. That’s 29 years as of this writing.

May predicts that the consumption of Yerba Maté will continue to increase as North Americans learn of its incredible health benefits and experience its ability to energize both the body and the mind while simultaneously heightening perception and memory.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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