The science behind matcha powder: How healthy is it, really?
Matcha tea. Matcha lattes and smoothies. Matcha muffins. From trendy wellness blogs to health clubs to your local grocer, it seems this matcha craze can be found just about everywhere.
Although matcha has been around for nearly 1,000 years, it experienced a surprising surge in popularity around 2013 — and its presence continues to grow. While it’s unclear what caused this sudden interest in matcha, some speculate that its picture-perfect bright green color may be responsible for its appeal on social media.
But what is matcha? And where did it come from? Is it good for you? Does it taste good? So many questions and so little time, so let’s dive in.
What is matcha (and why is it so green)?
First introduced more than 900 years ago and touted for its stress-reducing effects, matcha (pronounced MA-cha) is a powder made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant (which is, in fact, the plant from which all teas originate). More specifically, the leaves used for matcha are the Japanese-grown samidori, okumidori, and yabukita variety. Once ready for harvest, the leaves are destemmed and deveined and the resulting tencha leaves are then ground into a fine powder called matcha (which means “ground tea”).
Perhaps more important than the variety of leaf used is the way the leaves are grown. About three weeks before harvest, the plants are covered to block almost 90 percent of sunlight. This process increases the amount of chlorophyll and amino acids produced by the plant, and therefore is responsible for the characteristically bright green color and umami flavor of matcha powder.
Related: The bittersweet truth about honey’s health benefits
Is matcha tea good for you?
Maybe. Let me explain what I mean.
For starters, the nutrients in matcha tea is very concentrated, meaning you get a lot of bang for your buck. You can think of matcha tea as more concentrated form of Japanese green tea. Research suggests several potential health benefits of drinking green tea, including:
- Cancer prevention
- Lower cholesterol
- Reduced risk of stroke and heart disease
- Weight loss
- Improved cognitive function
For you coffee lovers, matcha connoisseurs report that the high nutrient content of the beverage causes a more steady release of caffeine as compared to coffee, which may result in less of a “crash.”
Matcha tea, in particular, contains roughly 70 mg of caffeine and 20 mg of an amino acid called L-theanine per typical 8oz serving, compared to 25 mg of caffeine and 8 mg of L-theanine in green tea. Both of these drinks come from the same type of plant, but because matcha uses the youngest leaves and is more heavily concentrated than green tea, it will inherently have more nutrients as a result of how it’s processed. We must also consider that matcha tea calls for the powder to be directly mixed in, whereas green tea requires the leaves to be steeped. A direct result of mixing in the powder is that you will consume a larger amount of amino acids and antioxidants than you would with green tea.
So, does that mean matcha is healthy?
The appropriate answer is that it’s not necessarily “unhealthy” for you — at least, no studies have proven so. But in fact, there’s not much research
For you coffee lovers, matcha connoisseurs report that the high nutrient content of the beverage causes a more steady release of caffeine as compared to coffee, which may result in less of a “crash.” However, this might simply be due to the fact that matcha contains about half the amount of caffeine in your standard corner coffee shop brew. So, perhaps this is simply a dose-response relationship.
Related: Is coffee good for your heart?
Here’s my two cents: Although the science isn’t there yet, consuming matcha doesn’t appear to be harmful and could potentially be good for you.
5 creative ways to give matcha a try
Traditionally (and most recognizably), matcha is whisked into hot water to create a frothy tea drink. This matcha tea is said to have a bitter, umami-like flavor thanks to the high concentration of amino acids. And, since matcha powder doesn’t fully dissolve in water, the matcha will actually settle to the bottom of your bowl as it sits. (Yes, I said bowl. This is the traditional way of serving matcha tea).
As you might expect, western civilization has decided that these properties aren’t the most appealing. Hence, your favorite coffee shop will most likely serve matcha in latte form mixed with milk and quite possibly a spoonful or two of sugar (which may or may not cloud your personal definition of “healthy”). So, as with all beverages you order, pay attention to the hidden sugar content and order unsweetened if possible.
You might also try your hand at using matcha in some of your favorite foods. Many matcha-savvy blogs suggest creative ways to try your hand with matcha.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Add it to baked goods in place of a small portion of flour
- Mix it into your oatmeal
- Add it to smoothies or lattes
- Use matcha noodles in soups
- Sprinkle it on popcorn
Questions about your diet or wellness goals? Talk to your primary care physician or a registered dietitian today.
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