Ilex paraguariensis, commonly known as yerba maté, is one of 500 to 600 species in the genus Ilex,1 which belongs to the holly family (Aquifoliaceae) of shrubs and trees.2 Ilex species are distributed in tropical and subtropical to temperate regions, mainly in tropical Central and South America.2 An understory tree that occurs in mixed Araucaria angustifolia (Araucariaceae) forests in South America, I. paraguariensis is native to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.3
The tree thrives at elevations between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (304.8 and 609.6 m) in alluvial or humus-rich soils.4 Ilex paraguariensis trees are functionally dioecious (male and female flowers occur on separate plants) and, in natural forest conditions, can reach up to 35 meters (114.8 feet) tall,5 although some authors report an upper height of 16 meters (52.5 feet).6 On plantations and smaller family farms, the trees are pruned and may be kept at 12 to 30 feet (3.7 to 9.1 m) tall.7 Ilex paraguariensis is a long-lived understory tree, and populations of hundreds of individual trees per hectare are found in mountainous subtropical forests of northeastern Argentina, southern Brazil, and Paraguay.5 However, cattle grazing in Araucaria forest ecoregions is one of the main factors reducing the density of I. paraguariensis trees and modifying their distribution pattern.8
Ilex paraguariensis is cultivated on about 326,000 hectares (805,564 acres) in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, and an estimated 1 million metric tons (MT) of leaves are harvested each year. Argentina accounts for about 85% of global production,9 which is not to be confused with global export trade volume. Most of the harvest remains in South America, where yerba maté is consumed in an estimated 98% of Argentinian households. Another source reports that yerba maté is consumed in more than 90% of households in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, and the economies of entire provinces are heavily dependent on yerba maté production and trade.10
In 2019, about 80,332 MT of yerba maté leaf were exported from South America.11 The top three exporters, accounting for most of the supply in terms of volume were Argentina (39,698 MT), Brazil (36,203 MT), and Paraguay (4,196 MT). In recent years, drinking yerba maté tea has spread to Arab countries, with Syria being a main importer from Argentina (Jorge Alonso, president of the Latin American Society of Phytomedicine, email to T. Smith, January 26, 2021). The United States imported 7,615 MT of yerba maté leaf in 2019, mainly from Argentina and Brazil, with smaller amounts from Ecuador, Paraguay, and Uruguay.12
HISTORY AND CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE
In his 1737 work Genera Plantarum, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) assigned the genus name Ilex,13 which was already used in the Latin name for the Mediterranean holly oak (Quercus ilex, Fagaceae), probably due to the similar glossy leaves.14 The species name Ilex paraguariensis, referring to Paraguay, was given by French botanist Auguste François César Prouvençal de Saint-Hilaire (1779-1853) in his account of a six-year journey (1816-1822) through the interior of Brazil and to Paraguayan missions, which he presented at the French Academy of Sciences (Paris, France) and published in the 1822 ninth volume of Mémoires du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle.15 Saint-Hilaire described three varieties of I. paraguariensis: obtusifolia, acutifolia, and angustifolia.16
Ilex paraguariensis is listed among the economic plants encountered by English biologist and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) on his five-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle. While in Argentina and Chile, Darwin drank yerba maté tea as a substitute for tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae). In a letter sent from Buenos Aires to his sister in England, Darwin wrote: “I am become quite a Gaucho; drink my Mattee and smoke my cigar.”17
Ilex paraguariensis, whose leaves are used to prepare the herbal tea called chimarrão or maté, is a cultural keystone species of indigenous peoples of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Traditional knowledge of production, processing, and consumption of yerba maté has been passed to each generation since pre-colonial times.18 Yerba is a Spanish word that means “herb.” Maté is reportedly a Quechua word that is associated with the terms cabaca (gourd) or cuia (dried gourd used as a cup). The name maté has come to mean the contents of the cuia, namely the herbal tea infusion of the leaves of I. paraguariensis prepared in the cuia.16
According to Williams (1962):
The traditional utensils for drinking maté are the cuia and bombilla. The cuia is usually a dried, often decorated, gourd with a round apical opening two or three inches in diameter. The bombilla, a hollow metal tube, has a bulb-like or spoon-shaped strainer at the lower end, through which the beverage is sipped. To prepare the infusion the cuia is half filled with ground maté leaves, over which boiling water is poured.4
Possibly the earliest archaeological evidence of human use of yerba maté was detected in plant micro remains from a pipe found at Catamarca in northwestern Argentina, dated to the Lower Formative Period (650 BCE–500 CE). Carbonized leaves of yerba maté, coca (Erythroxylum coca, Erythroxylaceae), lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora, Verbenaceae), and tobacco (Nicotiana spp., Solanaceae) were identified.19 Similar administration of yerba maté by aspiration (inhalation) among the Tehuelche people of Patagonia is reported in ethnographic literature.20 Tupí-Guaraní-speaking peoples were already managing yerba maté production in tropical rainforests at the time of first contact with Europeans around 1500. Non-indigenous use of yerba maté and commercial trade spread via Jesuit missionaries.21
After the Spanish conquest of Paraguay, three colonies were established (in 1554, 1557, and 1576) expressly for the purpose of harvesting yerba maté leaves using enslaved Guaraní people for labor. After 1578, Jesuit priests gradually took control over the yerba maté industry despite its exploitation of indigenous people.16 After the end of the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870), with Paraguay defeated by the alliance (Argentina, Empire of Brazil, and Uruguay), “recruitment” of indigenous Guaraní-Kaiowás farm workers increased. A few large-scale transnational corporations dominated yerba maté production and trade in the last decades of the 19th century, using semi-enslaved indigenous farm labor from the defeated Paraguayan territories.22
In Brazil, espinheira-santa (Maytenus ilicifolia, Celastraceae) leaf is traditionally mixed with yerba maté leaf in the preparation of maté or chimarrão to counteract known minor side effects, such as heartburn and stomach pain, experienced by some people when drinking yerba maté as a single herb tea infusion.23 (The same traditional combination is used in Paraguay but not known to be used in Argentina [Jorge Alonso, email to T. Smith, January 26, 2021].) Yerba maté branches, leaves, and stems are used by the Yungas people of northwestern Argentina as a source of green dye prepared with mordants (dye fixatives) including alum, urine, salt, and vinegar.24
In Argentinian ethnomedicine, the aerial parts of yerba maté reportedly are used for galactagogue (promotes lactation) and cicatrizant (promotes wound healing by forming scar tissue) actions, while herbal tea infusions of the leaf are used for treating conditions related to influenza and for scurf (dandruff).25 A yerba maté monograph was included in the first edition of the Farmacopea Argentina in 1898, omitted from the second edition in 1921,26 readmitted into the seventh edition in 2002,27 and remains official in the currently valid eighth edition. The first edition of the Farmacopéia Brasileira, published in 1929, included a yerba maté monograph. However, it was omitted from the second edition, published in 1959.
A quality standards monograph for yerba maté entered the 1948 supplement to the sixth edition of the German Pharmacopoeia (Folia Mate DAB Erg.-B.6).28 However, the monograph was not retained in the seventh edition(s) of the pharmacopeias of the former West Germany (DAB 7 1968) and former East Germany (DAB 7-DDR 1973). Two monographs entered the German Drug Codex (DAC) in 1986: cured and roasted maté leaf (Mate folium tostum) and green maté leaf (Maté folium viride).29 In 1988, the German Commission E published a positive therapeutic monograph for yerba maté (Maté folium — Mateblätter), prepared as powdered leaf for oral ingestion or as cut leaf for making an herbal tea infusion, indicated for treating mental and physical fatigue.30
In 2010, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued an opinion that a cause-and-effect relationship had not been established between the consumption of yerba maté and a beneficial physiological effect related to an increase in renal water elimination (diuresis).31 Also in 2010, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) published a labeling standards monograph for Mate folium that superseded the German Commission E monograph for purposes of product marketing authorization in the European Union.32 However, in 2018, an official quality standards monograph entered the fourth supplement to the ninth edition of the European Pharmacopoeia (PhEur 9.4),33 which superseded the national monographs of France and Germany for purposes of a marketing authorization holder establishing quality specifications for yerba maté leaf, if used as an active ingredient of a registered traditional herbal medicinal product (THMP) in the European Union (EU).
CURRENT AUTHORIZED USES IN COSMETICS, FOODS, AND MEDICINES
In the United States, yerba maté is marketed as a beverage tea for energy, similar to caffeine-containing leaves of other Ilex species such as guayusa (I. guayusa) and yaupon (I. vomitoria). The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies natural extractives of yerba maté as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use in conventional food products.34 It may also be used as a component of dietary supplement products, which require notification with the FDA within 30 days of marketing if a structure-function claim is made.35 In its 2003 final rule on ingredient labeling of dietary supplements that contain botanicals, the FDA used yerba maté as an example of a non-English herb name that could be used as the standardized common name on product labeling.36
In Canada, yerba maté is regulated as a medicinal ingredient of licensed natural health products (NHPs), which require pre-marketing authorization from the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD). Licensed NHPs containing yerba maté extract equivalent to six grams dried leaf (not exceeding 150 mg caffeine per day) may carry claim statements to the effect of “helps temporarily to promote alertness and wakefulness, and to enhance cognitive performance,” “helps temporarily to relieve fatigue,” and/or “helps temporarily to support mental sharpness.”37
In the EU, cut, dried yerba maté leaf may be used as an active ingredient of registered THMPs, for preparation as an herbal tea infusion, and labeled with the therapeutic indications “for symptoms of fatigue and sensation of weakness” and/or “to increase the amount of urine to achieve flushing of the urinary tract as an adjuvant in minor urinary complaints.”32 The dried leaf used for production of registered THMPs must conform to the quality standards monograph of the European Pharmacopoeia.38 However, it may also be marketed as a food beverage (without claims) in some Member States because it was in the EU market as a food or food ingredient and consumed to a significant degree before May 15, 1997. This means that its access to the EU market is not subject to the Novel Food Regulation. Ilex paraguariensis also appears on the Belgian list of plants that are considered to be not novel for use in food supplements and herbal teas.39 Furthermore, use of an extract of the leaves in cosmetic products in the EU is authorized specifically for hair-conditioning, perfuming, and skin-conditioning functions.40
The primary active compounds in yerba maté leaves include polyphenols, xanthines, saponins, and caffeic acid derivatives, which have demonstrated antimicrobial, antioxidant, antidiabetic, cardioprotective, and metabolic effects in multiple pre-clinical investigations.41-44 Clinical research has focused on applications of yerba maté in metabolic disorders, including weight management,45-47 metabolic syndrome,48 and diabetes,49 but also exercise performance and for cardiovascular benefits,44,50-52 as detailed in Table 1.53-76
Outcomes of safety assessments of yerba maté in multiple pre-clinical and clinical settings are heterogeneous and controversial. A yerba maté dry extract showed no acute or 90-day subchronic toxicity in rats and rabbits at 2 g/kg body weight.77 An aqueous extract showed no signs of reproductive toxicity in rats.78 A cross-sectional study in 5,304 pregnant women, 68% of whom habitually consumed yerba maté, showed no association with prematurity, intrauterine growth, or duration of pregnancy.79
Carcinogenicity has been attributed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in yerba maté.80,81 Furthermore, consumption of hot yerba maté was associated with increased risk of cancer of esophagus, larynx, and oral cavity in several epidemiological studies.81-84 However, breast cancer risk was found to be inversely associated with yerba maté consumption in a study assessing 572 cancer cases and 889 controls.85,86 One case report associates yerba maté consumption with veno-occlusive disease of the liver; however, causality is questionable.87 A more reliable causal link between yerba maté consumption and acute hepatitis is reported in another case report.88
Other Ilex species have similar traditional uses and have been reported as adulterants of yerba maté.89 Confusion with the leaves of other Ilex species in wild collection have included I. dumosa and I. theezans, but also leaves of cassava (Manihot esculenta, Euphorbiaceae) and juçara (Euterpe edulis, Arecaceae).90 In Brazil, local congeneric substitutes or adulterants of I. paraguariensis reportedly have included I. argentina, I. brevicuspis, I. dumosa var. dumosa, I. integerrima, I. microdonta, I. pseudobuxus, I. taubertiana, and I. theezans.91 Ilex paraguariensis, but not all Ilex species (e.g., I. brevicuspis), contains methylxanthines; therefore, the absence of these compounds would indicate that I. paraguariensis is not present in a tested sample (Jorge Alonso, email to T. Smith, January 26, 2021).
The European Pharmacopoeia monograph for testing of yerba maté (Mate Folium PhEur 10)38 provides macroscopic, microscopic, thin-layer-chromatography (TLC), and high-performance-liquid-chromatography (HPLC) tests for confirming composition, identity, quality, and strength. Furthermore, the labeling standards monograph of the EMA requires, in addition to compliance with a pharmacopeial monograph for quality, adequate control of the PAH content in yerba maté leaf.32 In the EMA’s 2016 reflection paper on PAHs in herbal medicinal products, the agency stated that very high concentrations of PAHs have been detected in yerba maté leaves, and in both hot and cold infusions. PAHs are created when substances such as coal, oil, gas, and organic waste are burned incompletely. According to the EMA: “This can arise due to contamination by environmental sources, as the lipophilic properties of these compounds allow their adsorption onto atmospheric particles and direct deposition in sediments, soils and plants, or during the post-harvest processing.”92 The yerba maté industry is reportedly making progress on strategies for managing and lowering PAH content.
SUSTAINABILITY AND FUTURE OUTLOOK
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assigned wild I. paraguariensis to the conservation category of near threatened (NT),3 meaning the species is close to the threatened thresholds or would be threatened without ongoing conservation measures. However, the assessment was published in 1998 and may need updating.
A project for biodiversity conservation and sustainable land management implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) focusing in the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest (UPAF), which includes a large part of Paraguay’s Eastern Region, included sustainable yerba maté production in its scope.93 One project outcome was the planned implementation and promotion of sustainable yerba maté production under agroforestry systems (AFS). The plantations are to be established specifically in areas aiming to restore protective forests of water channels.94
One Argentinian study reported that yerba maté as a monoculture causes erosion and soil exhaustion and, therefore, recommended establishment and management of certified organic yerba maté in AFS. Organic yerba maté in AFS along with certain native trees can improve soil fertility without use of fertilizers and increase farmer income. Several native tree species recommended in the study for AFS intercropping with yerba maté include Araucaria angustifolia, Cordia trichotoma (Boraginaceae), Nectandra lanceolata (Lauraceae), Ocotea puberula (Lauraceae), and Tabebuia heptaphylla (Bignoniaceae), among others.6
In the 21st century, a considerable global market for sustainably produced yerba maté emerged and continues to grow. An increasing number of export-oriented yerba maté farming and processing operations in South America have implemented voluntary sustainability standards such as the Demeter Biodynamic Farm and Processing Standards, Ecocert Fair for Life Standards, Fairtrade International (FLO) fair trade standards, Fair Trade USA Agricultural Production Standards, and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Standards.
For example, the farm Triunfo do Brasil Ltda (Paraná, Brazil), founded in 1925, harvests yerba maté in an organic-certified natural forest area of 2,000 hectares that is also Fair for Life and Fair Trade USA certified.95 There are Demeter Biodynamic certified yerba maté farms such as Matebrás Indústria do Mate Ltda ME in Brazil and Guayakí Latin America SA Reserva Agroecológica Iguazú in Argentina, the latter of which is also Fair for Life certified.96 Guayakí (Sebastopol, California) also has an organic- and Fair for Life-certified producer in Brazil (Guayakí Yerba Mate Brasil Produção e Comércio LTDA). Other Fair for Life-certified yerba maté operations in Brazil include Cooperativa de Reforma Agrária e Erva-Mate (COPERMATE), Ervateira Catanduvas, Industría de Erva Mate Yacuy Ltda, NAT’Organico Produtos Naturais, and Qualitá Brasil Mate & Chá, among others.97
There are also FLO fair trade-certified yerba maté operations in Brazil including Associação dos Produtores Ecológicos do Centro-Sul do Paraná and the aforementioned NAT’Organico.98 There is an evident healthy global market for sustainable yerba maté, produced according to credible standards for ecological, economic, and social sustainability.
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