It’s green, it’s tea and it’s popular – but is it worth all the attention it attracts?
What is matcha?
It is a powdered tea made of finely ground green tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. Although it comes from the same plant that produces ‘normal’ tea leaves, matcha is a little different – it’s grown in the shade for three to four weeks before harvest. This process makes the leaves grow more slowly and concentrates some of their bioactive compounds, such as chlorophyll, caffeine and theanine.
An average cup of matcha is stronger than regular green tea because it consists of the entire powdered leaves, stirred in hot water to create the drink. Regular green tea is made with the tea leaves seeped in hot water and then removed.
Matcha is more expensive than other types of green tea simply because its production is more laborious. Firstly, there’s the arduous covering of the tea bushes with bamboo mats to create the shade they need and, later on, the grinding itself is a lengthy process. Grinding tea leaves into fine matcha powder is a prolonged process as the mill stones must not get too warm because that would change the tea’s aroma. Grinding 30-70 grams of matcha may take one hour.
Surprising health effects
Matcha is bright green in colour because the tea leaves from which it’s made contain increased amounts of the pigment, chlorophyll. It doesn’t just look pretty, this pigment has great antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and is often used externally for healing wounds – and it’s just as useful when you drink it!
Matcha is a particularly rich source of antioxidants from the polyphenol family, which comprise up to 30 per cent of the dry weight of the tea. One type of these are catechins – powerful free radical scavengers that protect our tissues and even our DNA from harmful metabolic by-products. Research shows they also boost the activity of enzymes that detoxify our bodies, making them more efficient.
Another group of health-protectors offered by matcha are phenolic acids that have both strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and have been shown to protect our nerves from damage, halt cancer cell growth and lower blood sugar.
Matcha is also rich in rutin and quercetin, another two polyphenol compounds, which protect our blood vessel walls from damage, can help regulate blood sugar, are powerful antioxidants, inhibit inflammation and protect the nerves.
Lastly, matcha is rich in theanine, an amino acid that that helps to reduce anxiety, improves your mood and calms you down. In short, theanine is a stress-buster!
Caffeine is one of matcha’s antioxidants, giving you an energy boost but also having an anti-inflammatory effect. If you don’t overdo it, a little bit of caffeine can be good for you!
The caffeine content of matcha varies between 19 and 44 milligrams per gram – most coffee beans contain 10 to 12 milligrams – but that doesn’t mean that matcha gives you more caffeine than coffee. For a cup of matcha, you tend to use between two and four grams of the powder (a half to one teaspoon). For a single espresso, on the other hand, it’s seven to nine grams of coffee – and you can double that for a double espresso, which is the typical coffee shop dose.
So, a cup of matcha made with half a teaspoon of powder contains 38 to 88 milligrams of caffeine while a single espresso shot contains 70 to 108 milligrams – and most coffee drinks would have twice this amount.
When to drink matcha
Matcha offers a host of health benefits but because it also contains caffeine and is a mild stimulant, it’s best to have it in the morning or during the day but not late in the afternoon or in the evening. If you don’t drink any other caffeinated drinks, two or three cups of matcha daily are fine but even one will give you the health benefits.
Who should avoid matcha?
Again, it’s about the caffeine – avoid giving matcha to children and if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it may not be for you either. Research shows that caffeine intake of up to 200 milligrams daily in pregnancy is safe but if you have high blood pressure, steer clear of it.
The highest quality matcha is labelled as ‘ceremonial grade’ – meaning that the powder is of a high enough quality to be used in the traditional tea ceremony and is usually made from young tea leaves only.
The next grade is ‘premium grade’ and designates a high-quality matcha again mostly made from young tea leaves. This is one is the best choice for daily consumption.
Lower-quality matcha is the cheapest and is usually labelled ‘culinary-grade’. There’s nothing wrong with it and it still offers all the same health benefits but is made of older tea leaves lower down the plant and may not have such a fine flavour as the higher grades. It’s best for cooking, adding to smoothies, ice creams or energy balls.
Whichever grade of matcha you choose, try to make sure it’s organic to avoid contamination issues. Some uncertified matcha powders have sometimes been found to contain various unsafe or outright dangerous pollutants. Organic should be safe whatever its grade.
How to use matcha
The traditional way to drink matcha is to mix a small amount – about half a teaspoon – of the powder with water that’s not quite boiling and then whisk it with a special bamboo whisk. However, you can make a nice cup of matcha even without the whisk and adding a splash of plant milk will give it a milder taste.
Matcha has been used both for its flavour and colour in a wide range of foods, such as cakes, sweets, ice cream, energy bars, smoothies and shakes, tempura batter – basically anything you want to make look bright green as well as adding nutritional benefits. You can’t really go wrong with matcha so feel free to experiment.
Matcha, it turns out, really is worth all the hype!