Mate tea, drunk widely throughout South America, is made from the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis ST. HIL, an evergreen tree indigenous to the region. The plant extract was first introduced by Frutarom, then known as Flachsmann, during Vitafoods in 2003 and has since seen considerable success in weight loss products.
"We really came to the market at the right time, just when ephedra was banned in the US," Sabine Cartellieri, product manager of pharma, told NutraIngredients.com.
Extracts of the plant have been shown to suppress appetite and stimulate energy release, giving Frutarom sales of a couple of tons since its launch, but also prompting competition in recent months.
However there is as yet little evidence to show which compound in mate has this effect and why. A new study funded by the firm starts the ball rolling on discovering why the tea can help slimmers.
Carried out at the Vitaplant laboratory in Switzerland, the in vitro tests found the extract, known as EFLA920, to inhibit the activity of lipase, an enzyme that helps to break down fat in the intestines into free fatty acids. Inhibiting lipase activity can reduce the quantity of free fatty acids and their intestinal absorption.
However mate contains different components that could be responsible either solely, or in combination, for this effect - caffeoylquinic acids, caffeine, theobromine and triterpene saponins.
"We haven't yet found out which component exactly is responsible for the weight loss effect. But with all our extracts we try to use them in the combination found in the plant," said Cartellieri.
"We are thinking however of doing further research as mate is one of our top products," she added.
Research is important as it can help supplement makers to distinguish their product in an increasingly crowded market. A recent review by two UK experts concluded that most dietary supplements do not have sufficient evidence to support claims for weight loss.
They said that evidence for a number of natural products including yerba mate, chromium picolinate, ephedra and garcinia camboga was encouraging but not conclusive except for ephedra, which has significant side effects.
Strong scientific evidence of how a natural product induces weight loss could also be key to survival in the European marketplace, where forthcoming health claims regulation is likely to outlaw all general claims on weight loss.
Frutarom's product is already available in a number of products around the world, including capsules and energy drinks.
It is now thought that one-third of western European consumers are currently overweight and by 2006 this will increase to almost half. The European dieting market is forecast to be worth over €100 billion in 2007.