by Dr. Will Cole
As a functional medicine doctor, my goal is to search out the best way for my patients to use food as medicine to optimize their health, and as a tea obsessive, I have a particular penchant for the healing power of the plants in the tea kingdom. Matcha has recently captivated the country, appearing in many a trendy coffee shop and Instagram feed. But is the green powder that people are putting in hot water, lattes, smoothies, baked goods, and even Frappuccinos something you should try, or is it just another health fad you should pass on? Let’s dive into the science.
What is matcha, and how is it different from other teas?
Matcha is a green powder made from a specific kind of green tea leaf. Green tea, black tea, and white tea all come from the same plant, called Camellia sinensis. The difference between green, black, and white tea is how it is grown and prepared. Unlike many other green teas, plants used for matcha are first covered and grown in the shade for 20 weeks before they are harvested. Living that cabana life boosts matcha’s chlorophyll levels, which is what gives matcha powder its vibrant green hue.
The green tea leaves are then laid out to dry, then ground into the fine green powder you see in the store or cafe. Unlike regular green tea which is steeped in bags or a steeper, with matcha you are drinking the whole leaf. Because of this, matcha is typically whisked in hot water, latte, or a blender to mix the powder. Matcha has been used for centuries in Japan as a sacred ceremonial drink. While today you can grab an almond milk matcha latte on the go, matcha was once revered, the preparation done with meticulous traditional detail.
Besides its intricate preparation, what will matcha actually do for my health?
There are many studies centered around green tea and its many health benefits. The main compound in tea that research has found to be uber-beneficial is something called epigallocatechin gallate (but you can call it EGCG). Although it sounds like a Star Wars robot or an ’80s rock band, this compound is an epic antioxidant for our health. EGCG and the other catechins or polyphenol antioxidants found in green tea have been shown to:
- Boost metabolism
- Improve the skin
- Slow down aging
- Decrease cancer growth
- Improve brain function
- Protect from brain diseases
- Reduce heart disease risk
- Reverse diabetes
Green tea is on my list of top ways to improve Treg cells, which help to balance the immune system, boost pro-antioxidant Nrf2 pathways, and decrease pro-inflammatory Nfkb activity (nerd talk for calming inflammation and reversing disease).
But since you can get EGCG from other green teas, is it worth it for you to stock up on matcha powder, especially because matcha tends to be more expensive than regular old green tea bags?
Well, matcha actually has quite a bit higher levels of EGCG than other green teas – compared to the highest levels of EGCG in regular green tea reported in the medical literature, one study found that matcha had up to three times more EGCG!
Similarly, another study compared the major green tea and matcha brands and found that matcha powders had higher concentrations of EGCG (50 to 55 mg of EGCG per gram of tea) compared to brewed teas (20 to 40 mg of EGCG per gram of tea).
How much matcha do I have to actually drink to get those sweet health benefits?
Most of the research done on the benefits of green tea have found the optimal amount to be 100 to 200 mg of EGCG, which comes to about 2 to 5 cups a day depending on the strength you make your matcha or other green tea.
If you want to get the most EGCG action out of matcha, or any tea for that matter, stick to regular hot water. Adding different milks tends to have a dampening effect on the antioxidant bioavailability, so enjoy your matcha latte but don’t make it your only source of EGCG.
Is matcha a cost-effective way to get all those antioxidants?
While matcha has more antioxidants, it costs at least $1 per teaspoon, which is the serving size. Compare that to around 10 to 25 cents for the average green tea bag. The cost to get your 200 mg of EGCG from matcha will be around $2, compared to around 27 cents from brewed green tea bags.
And if you’re simply looking for EGCG, the highest amount can actually be found in gyukuro green tea, which isn’t matcha or regular green tea at all.
Are there any cons to drinking matcha?
Possibly. Heavy metals such as lead can be found in many plant products because it is absorbed from the soil. Not just matcha, but green tea in general, is known to absorb lead at a higher rate. It’s possible that it can be higher in matcha because you are drinking the entire leaf versus steeping your tea.
The solution? Avoid tea from China. Studies have found that Chinese industrial pollution causes the leaves to have higher lead levels. I suggest getting your green tea, matcha included, only from Japan, where this is less of a problem.
I originally wrote this article for mindbodygreen.
Photo: Natasa Mandic