It’s green, loaded with antioxidants, and is said to support longevity. Also said to pack a nutrient profile approximately ten times more potent per cup than regular green tea, it has easily become one of the most in-demand beverages. But is it all just a bunch of hype or another fad, or are the benefits of matcha green tea really all that buzz worthy?
Before we take a closer look at what a cup of matcha contains, let’s take a step back in time to find out a little about the roots and traditions of this fascinating tea and how it went on to become a staple in Japanese culture, and more recently has exploded here in the West as one of the most “it” beverages.
A Buddhist Monk and Some Tiny Seeds…
Although China is the birthplace of tea, the story of matcha began with a Zen master, some tiny seeds, and a long journey home.
In the late 12th century, after completing his spiritual studies in China’s Anhui Province, Buddhist monk Eisai, began his journey home to Japan with a pouch of green tea seeds taken from plants found in the mountains of China, along with a new kind of tea that had been steamed, ground into a fine powder and then compressed into cakes for easy transport.
When Eisai arrived back in Japan, he planted the green tea seeds on the temple grounds in Kyoto, where he continued his studies and where his understanding of Buddhism grew along with the plants. He, and fellow Zen Buddhists grew the green tea plants in shaded conditions which they found, actually enhanced the therapeutic benefits.
When drinking the green tea before meditation, the monks began to notice a greater sense of focus and clarity. Add to that, sustained energy throughout the afternoon and an overall feeling of well being, and as their admiration grew, so did the ceremonial tradition of this special green tea known as “Matcha”.
Matcha was originally only used by Zen Buddhist monks for the purposes mentioned above, but warriors also began to use it as a ceremonial drink to sustain energy, sharpen mental alertness, and help them to stay centered during battle.
While Japan has continued to honor the ancient ritual of drinking matcha ceremonial style to celebrate simplicity, tranquility and mutual respect, modern science is also proving the vast and exciting physiological benefits of this traditional beverage, proving that the Zen masters of earlier days were on to something pretty spectacular.
Matcha – an Antioxidant Powerhouse
The benefits of green tea have been well known for a really long time, but matcha is a much more robust version of green tea. It contains approximately ten times the nutritional content of regular brewed green tea, making it’s therapeutic benefits that much stronger, and a beverage well worth adding to your list of healthy things to drink.
In fact, matcha contains 70 times the antioxidants of fresh orange juice and gives you clear, sustainable energy…how’s that for a healthy energy packed cup of morning goodness?!
Optimal growing conditions including climate, soil, and shade coupled with a cultivation practice which grinds the entire leaves into an ultra-fine powder, is what makes matcha green tea powder rise above other traditional teas, including other types of green tea, in terms of having extremely high concentrations of antioxidants and other nutrients.
Speaking of antioxidants – matcha green tea is literally a powerhouse, coming in at higher levels than fruits and vegetables and many top superfoods that already knock it out of the park on the antioxidant scale, or the ORAC scale.
The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) is the standard test method to measure the antioxidant levels in foods, beverages, herbs, and spices, which is important since antioxidants are excellent scavengers when it comes to fighting free radical damage to help prevent aging and chronic diseases.
Although an ORAC comparison chart would be nice right about now, I chose not to share one for the simple reason that I’ve seen varying numbers from different sources and although most are close enough in range to one another, I prefer not to risk possible misinformation.
So, instead I will just share that the ORAC range teeters somewhere between the 1300’s-1500’s, which still scores much higher per gram than other highly beneficial superfood like goji berries which come in at 253, acai berries (55-60), and broccoli (31), for example.
What are the Benefits of Matcha Green Tea?
Matcha contains something called catechins, which are unique and potent and not found in other food. They are also among the most researched antioxidants with plenty of backing by science proving their benefits for health and well being. Particularly noteworthy is EGCg (epigallocatechin gallate) which provides potent anti-cancer properties, and over a whopping 60% of catechins in matcha are EGCg.
The antioxidants and other nutrients in matcha can benefit health in a number of ways including:
- Promote longevity and reduce signs of aging both internally and externally
- Aid in detoxification
- Reduce cancer risk
- Protect against heart disease and stroke
- Support healthy cognitive function, reducing risk of dementia
- Enhance mood and aid in focus and concentration
- Stabilize blood sugar
- Boost metabolic rate and burn calories
How Does Matcha Provide Sustainable and Calm Energy and Focus?
The psychoactive effect of matcha is unique since although it does have a stimulant-like effect on the brain, it also helps you stay calm and focused. I realize it may seem paradoxical to think that matcha provides energy while making you feel calm at the same time, but it’s this very trait that drew Zen masters to it as a useful in aid for their meditation practice.
While matcha does contain caffeine, the “buzz” is much different from the “wired” buzz you get from coffee and it’s not just attributed to the fact that it contains less caffeine either (approximately one-third to one-half the amount per cup).
What sets matcha apart from other caffeine containing beverages is that it contains three substances – caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine – which work synergistically to create sustained alertness, balanced with a fourth component – L-theanine – which promotes calm and focus.
By creating alpha waves in the brain, the amino acid L-theanine in matcha green tea adds the calm and relaxed component to an alert state, which allows for a nice sustainable focused concentration rather than the scattered or nervous energy that other types of caffeine like coffee, soda, or energy drinks tend to give you.
So, if it’s clear, sustainable, non-jittery energy, extra focus, or an afternoon pick-me-up you’re after, it can be found in a nice cup of matcha green tea.
How Does Matcha Support Detoxification?
The vibrant bright green color of matcha is a testament to the abundant chlorophyll it contains, which supports natural detoxification by cleansing the blood and supporting an alkaline environment in the body. Chlorophyll is also effective at ridding the body of chemicals and heavy metals, safely and gently. And the process of growing matcha in the shade amps up the chlorophyll content compared to other green teas.
How Does Matcha Support Weight Loss?
For quite some time, green tea in general has been used for weight loss. Matcha green tea is a thermogenic, meaning it has the ability to effectively boost metabolism and burn fat. In fact, research indicates that drinking green tea can increase the body’s own rate of burning calories from a normal average of 8-10% of daily energy expenditure, to a whopping 35-43%.
The nice thing is that you can get the fat burning abilities of matcha without increasing heart rate or blood pressure, making it a safe weight loss aid without any adverse side effects. Plus it’s virtually calorie free, making it a great beverage as part of a weight loss program or even just to maintain your weight in general.
The adaptogenic aspect of matcha and the ability to support the adrenal glands by lowering levels of the hormone cortisol, the stress hormone that contributes to an increase in belly fat, plus the finding that matcha improves physical endurance, add to the list of reasons why matcha is a viable option when it comes to wanting to accelerate weight loss or maintain a healthy weight.
Lead Precautions and Why the Origin of Matcha is Important
Concern over lead in green tea is valid, since when it is present in the environment, it can be absorbed by the tea plants. But it’s a good idea to be aware of the bigger picture when it comes to factoring this into the equation of drinking matcha tea. And organic matcha does not guarantee the absence of lead, but there are ways to avoid potentially dangerous amounts of lead when drinking matcha green tea.
1. Know the origin of your matcha. Matcha grown and cultivated in Japan is known to not exceed lead limits, whereas a good percentage of matcha grown in China has been found to contain higher levels of lead. Regions of Japan that produce the highest-quality matcha include Kyushu, Nishio, Shizuoka and Uji.
2. Don’t overdo it. Keep in mind that when regular green tea is steeped, about 90% of the lead will stay in the leaf and get discarded. On the other hand, since the entire leaf is ground up into matcha powder, coincidentally more lead can end up in your cup, so limiting matcha intake to one cup per day seems like a reasonable way to take advantage of the health benefits without the risk of ingesting too much lead.
Bottom line: There are far too many benefits of drinking high-quality matcha to forego it in moderation on the basis of it possibly containing lead. Choose high quality sources from Japan and when in doubt, I would contact the manufacturer and ask where they source their matcha from and whether they report consistent testing for the presence of heavy metals, since different parts of the world have higher concentrations of lead than others.
How to Enjoy Matcha
My favorite way to enjoy matcha is in its most simple state…matcha powder, hot water and a bamboo whisk. But I also love a hot or cold matcha latte made with unsweetened almond milk and a spoonful of raw orange blossom honey. I like to toss it into smoothies, yogurt, and chia pudding. It’s also fun to enjoy in things like muffins, cookies and cakes…the possibilities are endless really!
The traditional way to prepare matcha includes a matcha bowl (chawan) a bamboo scoop (chasaku), a bamboo whisk (chasen) and a matcha sifter (furui) or a small, fine mesh strainer. However, if like me when I first started drinking matcha, you don’t have these things, you can substitute other things to make it work.
I happened to have a larger coffee mug close enough to the shape of a matcha bowl, so I just used it along with a my regular teaspoon and kitchen whisk, and it worked just fine…as long as you enjoy the experience and the matcha itself, that’s what really matters most.
But once you do fall in love with matcha, it’s hard not to go all in with a special bowl and utensils that really speak to the essence and beauty of traditional matcha preparation, as you can see in this video.
I just love the way this video was done. So pretty, don’t you think? If I hadn’t already enjoyed my cup of matcha for the day, this totally makes me want to enjoy one right now =)
While matcha certainly is not a health fad, unfortunately like many “new” things, its grand entrance in to the health and wellness world created an instant buzz, making it seem like some kind of trendy beverage that was just discovered, when just like many other so called trends, it is another “new-old” thing that has long been appreciated in the East as a most revered tea with a rich past rooted in ceremonial tradition.
Once again, long before us, the East knew what was up and it just took a while to catch on here in the West, but boy I’m so happy it eventually did!