Tea-riffic Benefits of Matcha
A Bite-Size Read for Your Health and Your Waistline
Drinks, desserts, a popcorn topping, oh my! Matcha seems to be everywhere these days. But what is it? How is it different from other types of tea? And why is everyone so excited about it?
Fun fact: white tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, dark teas and black tea all come from the same plant. The difference is in how they’re processed. Matcha is basically very young, green tea leaves. Traditional green tea grows for about three years before the leaves are harvested. Matcha, however, is grown in the shade for about three to four weeks. The leaves are picked, dried, rolled, and then ground into a fine powder. In fact, the literal translation of matcha is powdered tea.
There’s one more difference between matcha and your typical tea: you eat the leaves! When we make tea, we typically steep the leaves in hot water then toss the leaves. With matcha, you actually mix the powder with the water and drink the whole thing! This provides you with more nutrients. But what kinds of nutrients does matcha provide?
Matcha is rich in a type of antioxidants called catechins. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals (free radicals can cause cell damage and inflammation, which can snowball into disease). By one estimate, the number of catechins in matcha is up to 137 times greater than that of other types of green tea. I think it’s mostly because we’re eating the whole plant. Some studies have found that matcha helps protect the health of the liver, demonstrated by giving diabetic rats matcha for 16 weeks. Researchers found that matcha helped prevent damage to both the kidneys and the liver in these diabetic rats. You may also hear claims that matcha has anti-cancer benefits. Tests on mice suggested it can offer some protection against cancer, but they really don’t have studies on humans. The reason I hear most often for people’s gravitation toward matcha is to boost their metabolism or fat burning. I looked for science. There was one study that reported green tea may slightly increase metabolism. We need more studies to be done before coming to any conclusions.
The other big nutrient in matcha is called theanine. It is high in theanine because it’s grown in the shade. Theanine, or L-theanine, is an amino acid that connects to our neurotransmitters. It’s been reported to raise levels of brain serotonin and dopamine as well as possibly improve specific memory and learning tasks. There was a study on mice that found theanine can help reduce anxiety and improve mental state. It has also been shown to increase alpha wave activity in the brain, which may induce relaxation and decrease stress levels. A study in 2017 on humans also found consuming 200 milligrams of L-theanine improved cognition, selective attention, and other effects that were stronger in combination with the caffeine, also present with matcha. Interestingly, L-theanine alters the effects of caffeine. It gives you that same alertness while helping diminish or avoid the energy crash we often experience.
Speaking of caffeine, matcha has a lot of it! Matcha is more concentrated in caffeine than regular green tea. There’s about 35 mg of caffeine in a half teaspoon of matcha powder…a typical serving is one to two teaspoons! That means 70 to 140 mg of caffeine in a single serving.
On a practical level, matcha is pretty bitter and has a leafy, grassy taste…to me. Connoisseurs will describe it as creamy or buttery. If you’re drinking matcha tea, have one to two cups per day at the most. You make the tea by sifting 1–2 tsp of matcha powder into your cup, adding about two ounces of hot water, then whisking it together. If that’s too thick, add a little more water. If you want it thicker, add a little less water.
Not a tea drinker? Add matcha to smoothies, chia pudding, or sprinkle it on your afternoon snack of popcorn. You can definitely get creative — just make sure you like it! And if you really want to get deep into it, there are different grades of matcha. The culinary grade, for making smoothies, will probably cost you $20-$40 per 100g, which would be like 100 teaspoons. Premium grade is made of young tea leaves from the top of the tea plant. This has a more subtle flavor and runs about $80 for 100g. Traditional tea ceremonies use a ceremonial grade, which is a Buddhist temple type of purchase, and could cost $100 for 100g.
All in all, matcha helps neutralize free radicals and offers improvements in specific memory and learning tasks. It can also help induce relaxation and decrease stress levels or anxiety. Future research on humans may reveal more potential benefits, like anti-cancer or liver protection. Try it and see if you notice any difference in your energy. Is it different for you than coffee? Just make sure you like the taste before you go deep!