by Dr. Will Cole
As a functional medicine doctor, my goal is to search out the best ways for my patients to use food as medicine to optimize their health, and as an admitted tea fanatic, 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 (not to mention practically every Instagram feed I see these days). 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 check the science.
Is matcha tea, or something else?
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 that plant 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 with a steeper so you can drink the water but not the tea leaves, with matcha you are drinking the whole leaf, whisked into hot water, latte, or a blender. 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?
Matcha has been used for centuries in Japan as a sacred ceremonial drink, and I share that reverence for the green stuff because of matcha’s superior health benefits. Green tea alone is a potent source of antioxidants. 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).
The really cool thing about matcha is that, although it is more expensive than regular old tea bags, it has significantly 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 of matcha per day, depending on the strength. 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. Enjoy your matcha latte or smoothie 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 will be around $2 with matcha. Since you’ll need to drink more green tea to get the same amount of EGCG it will only be slightly less at around $1.60. So while you may be saving a little bit of money you’ll have to drink a lot more tea. 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 than many other plants. 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.
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