What is matcha tea?
Matcha is a type of green tea, made from the powdered leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Originally served at tea ceremonies in Japan, so-called matcha tea is now widely available and used in the food industry and in cooking.
Although from the same plant as green tea, matcha is grown differently and as a result has a unique nutrient profile. The plants are covered with bamboo mats during most of the growing period, which increases the amount of chlorophyll in the leaves for its characteristic bright green colour.
Made from the youngest, freshest part of the plant, the leaves are steamed to preserve their colour and nutrients, then dried using a specialist tencha-ro machine. The stems and veins of the remaining “tencha” are removed and the leaves are ground to a fine powder. So, when we enjoy a cup of matcha we consume the whole leaf rather than just an infusion of its leaves.
Some products sold as ‘matcha’ may in fact be powdered versions of green tea. These products look very similar so it’s not always easy to differentiate them – these are the powders often used in food products such as cake and ice cream.
How to prepare matcha tea
Sift 1-2 tsp matcha powder into a tea bowl and add hot – but not boiling – water. Whisk the tea vigorously in a zig-zag motion until it’s frothy and enjoy!
Nutritional benefits of matcha tea
Thanks to their unique growing conditions, the tea plants produce higher amounts of amino acids, including L-theanine, plant compounds called polyphenols as well as antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin C. Matcha is also relatively high in caffeine compared to other teas.
It’s worth remembering that the nutritional value of your prepared tea will depend on the temperature of the water you use – so always use hot but not boiling water for best results.
Top 7 health benefits of matcha tea
1. High in protective polyphenols
Compounds called polyphenols are known to protect the body against disease and make an important contribution towards a healthy, balanced diet. Matcha tea is especially rich in these protective plant compounds, although the tea is not necessarily high in the catechins that green tea is famed for.
This is because the younger leaves and the shaded growing conditions produce lower levels of some of these compounds, such as epigallocatechin and epicatechin, while havinh significantly higher levels of others, such as epigallocatechin gallate. The unique manufacturing process also preserves much of the plant’s nutrient value.
2. Boosts brain health, function and alertness
Matcha is a concentrated source of polyphenols, chlorophyll, caffeine and L-theanine – all of which benefit brain function. As a stimulant, caffeine acts on the central nervous system, increasing energy metabolism throughout the brain as well as heightening alertness and memory performance. Caffeine also has antioxidant properties and in conjunction with the catechins in matcha, may help prevent the occurrence or progression of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
3. May have a stress-relieving effect
The amino acid L-theanine may have benefits for the nervous system. From a calming perspective, it helps increase levels of the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA which soothes and relaxes the mind.
However, how effective your cup of matcha is depends on the authenticity of its origin and the important process of shading the plant during the growing stage, which increases levels of L-theanine. Traditional Japanese matcha is rich in L-theanine, with lower levels of caffeine and catechins. Sadly, commercially processed matcha often fails meets this ratio and as a result lacks these stress-busting benefits.
4. May support a healthy heart and cardiovascular system
Studies suggests that like green tea, matcha is a good choice if you’re looking to reduce your risk of heart disease and associated conditions, including heart attack and stroke. One way it may help is in its beneficial effects on cholesterol management.
5. May be good for bone health
Some studies suggest that by choosing tea, especially varieties of green tea, you may help strengthen your bones and as a result reduce your risk of bone fracture. Green tea, including matcha, appeared to be more beneficial in increasing bone mineral density than other kinds of tea owing to its higher levels of plant compounds, reduced oxidation and increased antioxidant capacity.
6. May aid weight management
The plant compounds and caffeine in varieties of green tea like matcha may boost metabolic rate and speed up fat burning in those with a high proportion of abdominal fat according to studies. These effects can be enhanced when the consumption of matcha is combined with a daily programme of 30 minutes of brisk walking.
7. May support blood sugar management
Studies suggest green tea, including matcha, may improve how responsive we are to the blood sugar hormone insulin. As a result it may have a beneficial effect on our ability to control blood sugar.
Is matcha tea safe for everyone?
Matcha tea is generally recognised as safe for most of us. However, if you’re sensitive to caffeine, it’s advisable to limit the total number of caffeinated drinks you consume, including matcha. Consuming too much caffeine from any source may disrupt your sleep and, in some people, increases anxiety; if this is relevant to you, look to reduce your intake and aim to have your last caffeinated drink at about 12 noon. Other groups who should limit their caffeine intake include pregnant women.
What should I look for when buying matcha tea?
When purchasing matcha check that the powder is vibrant green in colour, that it has an ultra-fine silky texture and is packaged to limit exposure to air and light. You should expect to pay a little more than for other green teas because of the specialised growing conditions and manufacturing process. Your cup of matcha should be aromatic with a fresh but grassy smell and a hint of sweetness.
The matcha used as an ingredient in food products is unlikely to be a premium matcha and more likely to be a powdered green tea, so is unlikely to contribute the same, if any, health benefits.