It’s hard to believe yerba mate, cans of which many students chug to get through finals, is the subject of centuries-old South American legends.
Mate is a caffeinated beverage made from dried leaves and twigs of the native South American yerba mate plant with hot water. Though its arrival in California might seem relatively recent, yerba mate has been consumed elsewhere for centuries.
It all dates back to the pre-Columbian era, when the Guarani – a people native to Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil – began to use the herb in medicinal practices. According to their oral history, the Guarani believed that mate preparation had been taught to a native family by the goddess of the moon Yari.
Mate’s powers of wellness were also mythicized. It was believed a shaman once introduced the drink to an aging man who was then revitalized. The Guarani considered mate to be a gift from the gods, a reward for their hard work and values. Mate, seen as a holy drink, was said to be the secret to health.
Mate has transcended both time and geographical borders. After the Spaniards colonized South America, mate became one of the key exports and both its production and consumption skyrocketed in the region as whole.
Today, mate is a staple of the southern region of South America. Not only is there a National Institute of Yerba Mate in Argentina, statistics show 98% of Argentine households keep the supplies required to make mate.
There, drinking mate is not synonymous with all-nighters or early mornings – it’s ritualistic. There are special utensils, locations and rules for drinking mate. The chopped-up leaves are first arranged in a gourd and wood vessel. The mate is drunk through a bombilla, a straw usually made of stainless steel.
Drinking mate in South America is a social experience. The gourd travels from hand to hand and the bombilla is used by multiple people. It’s a catalyst for conversation, family and community-building. It elevates the phrase “social drinker” to another level.
This begs the question: How did yerba mate make its way all the way from the Southern hemisphere to Westwood, where it’s become a finals week staple for many? Far removed from the social, friendly associations the drink has in its homeland.
Is mate the new coffee?
Be it midterms, finals or that dreaded 8 a.m. class, there are always people carrying around yellow canned yerba mate.
Jay Xu, a first-year physiological science student, said she drinks about two cans of yerba mate a day during finals week.
“It’s a good source of caffeine, but it doesn’t taste bad. I especially don’t like the taste of coffee or the way it makes me feel so yerba mate is a good alternative,” Xu said.
Yerba mate has 80 milligrams of caffeine per cup, which is less than half the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee. For people who are more caffeine-sensitive, yerba mate provides a bigger boost than black tea, but less of a buzz than a cup of coffee.
This middle ground inspired the founders of popular canned yerba mate brand Guayaki to commercialize the South American product in 1998.
Guayaki Sustainable Rainforest Products Inc., which takes is name from the indigenous Paraguayan people Ache-Guayaki, was founded by two students of California Polytechnic State University. In an interview with Cal Poly Magazine, the brand’s founders said they were looking for a healthier alternative to the coffee students were consuming to stay focused.
Though it has a long and rich history, the yerba mate in the hands of UCLA students was in essence created for college campuses. It was created for students at California universities looking for healthier alternatives to keep up with their workload.
But, how much healthier than coffee is yerba mate?
The Healthy Alternative
Even though it has been around for centuries, yerba mate has only recently been studied scientifically. There is a lot of ambiguity regarding some of the scientific properties of yerba mate.
Recent studies have shown a correlation between drinking yerba mate and antioxidant activity in the body. Yerba mate might prevent cell damage and long-term diseases caused by oxidative stress, such as heart disease, cancer and strokes.
There are other studies linking yerba mate with weight loss, protection against bacteria, cardiovascular protection and more. However, there also exist conflicting studies, and the effects of consuming mate remain ambiguous.
Dena Herman, adjunct assistant professor in the department of community health sciences, said traditional practices of drinking mate, with hot water and a metal straw, promoted some damage to the epithelial tissue and may have been linked to esophageal cancer.
“When they use firewood to heat the water, for example, certain carcinogenic properties can arise. These carcinogens get transferred into the leaves. It really depends on how the mate is processed,” Herman said.
Conversely, some research shows that drinking mate might prevent cancer.
“In fact, mate has substances that help reduce breaks in our DNA and improve DNA repair. However, there is not too much known about the quantity you would have to consume for this to be effective,” Herman said.
As the popularity of yerba mate increases, new research on the long term effects of mate on the human body will likely follow.
For now, it seems like yerba mate exists in competition to the widespread coffee culture at UCLA.
Alyssa Hill, a first-year biochemistry student, said she became curious about mate after seeing it around campus.
“I started drinking it because I saw that everyone else was drinking it. I thought it was good, but I still prefer a cup of coffee,” Hill said.
It remains to be seen whether yerba mate will take over the campus coffee culture. But with flavors like Enlighten Mint, Bluephoria, Orange Exuberance, Lemon Elation and Revel Berry, modern takes on yerba mate are not a hard sell.
The traditional, community-oriented values of yerba mate should not, however, be taken for granted in its commercial resurgence. Just like drinking a cup of coffee with friends, yerba mate’s history shows that it is not simply a source of energy. Rather it could also be a social experience that offers an interesting break from the busy lives of UCLA students.