It’s been called “super tea” or “super leaf” and health food stores and specialty coffee shops in North America and Europe can’t get enough of it.
Guayusa, as it is commonly known, is made from the ilex guayusa leaf. According to some scientific reports and its enthusiasts, who call it the “healthiest tea in the world,” it contains 50% more anti-oxidants than green tea, almost as much caffeine as coffee, as well as vitamins and minerals not found in other teas.
Despite its recent popularity, there’s nothing new about guayusa. It has been used by the indigenous people of Ecuador’s northern Amazon jungle for generations for its energy boost. Native hunters have been known to subsist for days on guayusa alone, while pursuing their prey. They chew the leaves and drink it as hot tea to boost night vision and overall mental acuity.
Before it became an international rage, Guayusa tea was also sold in markets and shops in Ecuador, usually in leaf form but, for the the past two decades, also in tea bags. It is readily available in Cuenca’s mercados and within the last two years, in supermarkets and some tiendas.
About 98 percent of the world’s guayusa is grown in Ecuador, in an area of the upper Amazon close to the Andes Mountains. Although it is typically brewed like tea, it’s not actually related to green or black tea.
Guayausa is rich in polyphenols, the most common compounds that comprise what are informally known as antioxidants. It contains chlorogenic acids, known for use for weight loss and heart health. It also contains a blend of theobromine (also found in dark chocolate), theophyline, vitamins C and D, essential minerals Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Zinc, Chormium, and all 15 essential amino acids, including leucine.
The first commercial production of Guayusa began in 2010 near Tena, 110 miles east of Quito, and 140 northeast of Cuenca. Runa, a non-profit corporation working with local cooperatives, dries and bags the ilex guayusa leaves and ships it to the U.S. where some of it is shipped abroad, particularly to Europe.
Headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, Runa — which means “to be human” in the Kichwa language — says its goal is to produce a socially conscious organic product for international markets. Runa currently works with over 4,200 indigenous farmers in the region and has generated over $1.3 million in income for them in 2019.
In addition to Runa, there are several other small producer that supply guayusa to the commercial market in Ecuador and southern Colombia. In Cuenca, the tea sells for about a quarter of what it does in the U.S.