Unlike in the U.S., parts of Europe and Australasia, where we have long been slaves to the coffee bean, many Latin Americans swear allegiance to a different beverage to get their caffeine fix. This is mate: a drink prepared by steeping dried, chopped and finely ground leaves of yerba mate (a species of the holly tree family) in hot (but not boiling) water. History of consumption precedes the arrival of the Europeans; indigenous Guaranis are known to have drunk it for medicinal purposes for some time prior to colonisation, but its popularity became widespread as the Spanish expanded their influence over the continent.
For many in central and southern South America today, in countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile, drinking Yerba mate remains not so much a habit as a daily ritual. It is traditionally drunk from a mate, or gourd, through a bombilla, or metal straw. In Argentina the act of drinking mate is even considered a communal bonding experience; locals stand or sit in a circle, passing the drink round while each person takes a slug of the herby concoction.
While Yerba mate has been the subject to numerous studies which attest to its health benefits --- it helps control appetite --- there have also been assertions that too much of it may indeed be a bad thing.
A 1996 study by the Institute of Oncology in Montevideo (published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention) found that in a study of 1000 mate drinkers in Uruguay the risk of lung cancer was 60% higher than in non-mate drinkers. However, this study neglected to account for the fact that many of the participants also smoked tobacco, which evidently may also have contributed to an elevated risk of the disease.
A further study, published in the same journal in 2003, found that drinking mate tripled the risk of oesophageal cancer (in a study of 800 adults, once again in Uruguay). This may be attributed to the fact that mate drinkers tend to consume the drink at scalding temperatures - which may be to blame, rather than the Yerba mate itself.
Dr Stefani and his team at the Hospital de Clinicas in Montevideo found after conducting a study on Uruguayan men that there was a direct correlation between yerba mate drinking and bladder cancer. The greater the consumption, the greater the apparent risk of developing the disease.
How Much Caffeine Does Yerba Mate Contain?
When brewed, yerba mate is found to contain approximately the same amount of caffeine as a regular cup of coffee. The health risks risked by drinking mate in large quantities are therefore tantamount to those involved in consuming large amounts of any highly caffeinated drink: those with high blood pressure should either consume in moderation or avoid the drink all together, for example, as too much caffeine can send levels soaring.
Does drinking mate help or hinder feelings of anxiety? Research to date may show contradictory results. Some claim the drink's properties settle nerves and restore feelings of calm. However, yerba mate's high caffeine content may also lead to increased levels of anxiousness, as has been displayed by other drinks high in caffeine.
Similarly, opinion is divided as to whether mate consumption helps fight insomnia and regulate sleep levels, or whether the caffeine content actually increases the likelihood of a bad night's sleep.
Finally, excessive mate consumption is particularly not advised in children. Although in Argentina and surrounding countries are virtually born with the silver straw in their mouth, the fact their bodies are not yet fully developed may make them more sensitive to the stimulant effects of the infusion.
It appears that despite the numerous health benefits of drinking yerba mate, there are also potential issues with excessive consumption of the drink. While much research has yet to be conclusive as to the genuine dangers of mate, too much of anything can be a bad thing - unlike my Argentine friends, who claim to drink up to three litres a day, perhaps it's better to consume it in moderation.