Yerba Mate vs. Coffee: Which is Healthier?


At BrainReady, we've covered the brain health and longevity-related benefits of just about every natural drink one could think of; from Matcha green tea to cocoa to the differences between espresso and regular coffee, the list of health-fueling natural choices can be almost overwhelming if you're trying to pick the right one for you.

But we'd be remiss if we didn't add Yerba Mate (pronounced "yair-ba mah-tay") to the list, particularly with so many BrainReady readers asking us how it stacks up against the surprisingly nutrient-rich coffee -- in both the nutrition department as well as the unpleasant side effects that can accompany coffee and espresso for many people. 

And unpleasant side effects, such as the stomach upset, post-caffeine "crash", shakiness and even serious anxiety that accompany coffee for some people, are also a serious problem for the often unrecognized fact that many people choose to drink chemical and sugar-laden sodas instead, as a sad alternative, missing out on the health benefits of these antioxidant-rich natural foods and instead ingesting unhealthy artificial alternatives. How many people do you know that say, "yeah, I can't really do coffee...." as they sip their 3rd diet soda? And we wonder why obesity and poor health is a problem. But we digress.

Actually, the better-than-coffee notion may indeed be the key driver of the Yerba Mate explosion over the last couple years. Another (perhaps related) factor may be the growing list of celebrities such as Matt Dillon, Madonna, Moby and other celebs, athletes and health gurus who all swear by the health benefits of Mate, citing the common Mate gospel, "significant mental and physical energy boosting without the crash or jittery effects of coffee, and with far more nutrients". 

So what is Yerba Mate? Yerba Mate, or Mate as it is often called, is a South American herb from the holly shrub of the South American rain forest. It grows wild in Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil, but is most abundantly in Paraguay where it is also cultivated. Drinking Mate is a longtime traditional social activity in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay -- family or friends pass around a "gourd" (fist-sized, round wooden ball-like cup) of the brew (just hot water and Mate leaves & stems), sipped through a "bombilla" (which translates to "little pump" or "straw"), often made of silver or bamboo. It's brewed in similar fashion other teas or even coffee in this sense; just hot water and the source, so it can also be easily brewed in a french press, tea ball infuser, tea pot with tea holder area, and similar methods if you don't happen to have a traditional gourd handy...


Traditional native source of health and energy: in South America, Yerba Mate has been revered for centuries as the “drink of the gods” and is still drunk daily for health, sustained energy and mental clarity by millions. The leaves of the rainforest Mate tree naturally contain 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids and are rich in antioxidants -- with reported ORAC antioxidant levels even higher than many brewed green teas. Many Mate advocates cite the Pasteur Institute and Paris Scientific society which in 1964 concluded, "it is difficult to find a plant in any area of the world equal to mate in nutritional value" and that yerba mate contains, "practically all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life.

It's also the national drink of Argentina (side note: wow! What would the national drink of the U.S. be soda?), where drinkers of Yerba Mate are even more ubiquitous than coffee drinkers in the United States. It is not uncommon to see Argentines walking down the street sipping out of a Mate gourd.

More bitter than English or Indian teas, Yerba Mate is something of an acquired taste for the neophyte: "Most Americans wouldn’t like it the way Argentinians drink it, it’s too earthy and grassy tasting," said David Karr, founder of the online herb vendor Guayaki. For that reason, many sellers are blending Yerba Mate with mint, vanilla, orange or other flavorings. Yet others find the native taste wonderful -- earthy, grassy, complex, and find this sort of blending and sweetening to be blasphemous (ed: we agree). "People are seeking out alternatives to coffee for getting a lift, and yerba mate is mild and not as acidic," said Karr. "People are burning out on coffee."

But one of the main draws is Yerba Mate’s reported health benefits. Vendors claim it can, "boost immunity, restore youthful hair color, retard aging, combat fatigue, control the appetite and eliminate insomnia," to name a few.

But is it all true? The answer is that there is still comparatively little comprehensive scientific research on the long-term effects of Mate consumption. But the nutritional constituents of the plant are real and verified, as are ORAC antioxidant levels thanks to some ORAC testing, and thus it's likely that Mate does provide large, complex range of antioxidants as well as nutrients and amino acids, as widely reported. Just as with Matcha green tea or high-quality organic coffee beans, the source must be as pure as possible in order to derive maximum benefit: in this case, rainforest shade-grown Mate, consumed straight (no added sugar or milk or other diluting elements). And like Matcha, teas and coffees, the strength of the brew will also affect the resulting amount of nutrients. 

From an antioxidant profile standpoint, and 8 oz. serving of Mate compared to an 8 oz serving of brewed sencha green tea shows that Mate's ORAC level is indeed almost twice that of both brewed green tea and coffee, however high-grade Matcha green tea and ground Sencha can still eclipse Mate (and coffee) on the ORAC scale depending on source and brewing strength (and contain some different components at different levels, which have given green tea its own deserving praise, most notably EGCG and L-Theanine). 

Oh, and there is caffeine in Mate...although some Mate proponents insist that the form in Mate is slightly different and worthy of its own name, "Mateine", providing almost identical effects but without the caffeine jitters. Others argue that it's the same caffeine as in other teas, but thanks to the synergistic combination of balancing nutrients, the net effect is far different from coffee. 

So whether it's the same caffeine as in other teas and coffees or indeed the purported mateine variant, Yerba Mate contains about 30 milligrams of caffeine/mateine in an eight ounce cup, according to a recent Health Canada report, compared with 47 milligrams in a cup of tea and 100 milligrams in a cup of coffee. 


So how does is compare to coffee? To answer this question, one must look at the nutritional profile of both mate and coffee, as well as the "functional" profile -- or the real-world human effects and experiences of those who have consumed both and found differences. From a nutritional standpoint, assuming both coffee and mate drinks are prepared equally using high-quality fresh source material and nothing else but hot water added, Mate does appear to win: with comparatively higher levels of both amino acids and plant-derived vitamins, the combination of leaves and stems from the mate tree have been shown to possess a higher overall nutritional profile than the coffee bean. But remember that BOTH are powerhouses in the overall antioxidants area compared to so many other beverage choices out there (including most fruit juices).

Functional benefits may be the key difference: it's in the real-world, practical application area that Mate really shines compared to coffee, at least for many people, particularly those sensitive to the effects of coffee: many former coffee drinkers cite the fact that Mate doesn't upset their stomach like coffee once did, which can be attributed to Mate's more alkaline nature compared to the often acidic coffee (depending on how coffee is brewed, of course, as we've cited in our Espresso vs. coffee comparison). 

With about one-third the caffeine of coffee, plus the presence of natural calming tryptophan and other elements, many also report the lack of jitters, shakes and anxiety that can accompany coffee drinking, resulting in all of the "good buzz" of coffee without the bad. And perhaps most significant is the reported lack of "coffee crash", which has been particularly of interest to athletes and performers, who cite Mate's sustained energy without the hard crash at the end; this is likely the result of lower caffeine content combined with calming amino acids and muscle-fueling nutrients, helping athletes both mentally and physically without an extreme jittery high (and resulting crash) as can occur from coffee.


Sounds great, but what about the downside? The fact is that despite Yerba Mate's recent popularity climb, comparatively little is known, scientifically, about the long-term effects of regular consumption. But many studying Mate's historical traditional usage have found numerous examples of peoples who thrived nutritionally, and experienced impressive longevity, despite otherwise poor diets and access to other staples of nutrition. This supports the reports of Mate's nutritionally rich profile. 

There have been a few past anecdotal reports of liver toxicity associated with Mate, but there appears to be no conclusive findings nor other problems that one would assume to accompany such a dramatic increase in consumption around the world (not to mention the many centuries of Mate drinking in South America). To the contrary, Mate's only apparent downside is that it does contain caffeine (or mateine, for purists), which for some can be problematic even in amounts smaller than present in coffee. Frankly, compared to the garbage that so many people commonly drink as their day-long beverages, one can only imagine how the health problems of society at large would change if Yerba Mate (and Matcha green tea, white teas, Rooibos, and other excellent options) were the norm rather than the exception. 

Our conclusion: we like it. A lot. And we've added Yerba Mate to our list of natural drinks that we at BrainReady enjoy ourselves and recommend to friends, family and peers. But not at the exclusion of coffee, nor Matcha green tea, nor brewed green or white teas for that matter. Yes, Yerba Mate may indeed beat coffee from an antioxidants, nutrients and functional standpoint, but the coffee bean and other teas are also wonderful for different reasons, particularly for those who can tolerate them without problems. 

We enjoy ALL of these natural plants-made-into-drinks, and all of them have been shown to possess health benefits to brain and body, so we like alternate. Some days we'll substitute Yerba Mate in place of coffee in the morning, have a bit of Matcha in the afternoon. Other days, it's Matcha in the morning, and some white tea late in the afternoon, and Rooibos in the evening. Others, it's all about coffee and espresso, especially when there's a particularly interesting coffee varietal available. 

So just as with the importance of having a rich and varied diet, we like a balance of all of these wonderful natural drinks, and we'd encourage you to consider the benefits of a varied, balanced approach.  The fact remains that all are high in antioxidants, all are tasty, all possess brain-fueling and physically-boosting properties, all have been used for eons by millions of people. 

It's not an "either/or", but rather "all, in balance". 


- The BrainReady Team

(What do you think about Yerba Mate? What are your favorite sources? Discuss below by clicking the 'Comments' link!)

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