Few foods are as commonly associated with health and wellbeing as a refreshing cup of green tea. When people begin moving towards a healthier lifestyle, green tea - or matcha, its most famous subtype - is often one of the first additions to their daily routine. Fans around the world can list matcha green tea benefits on ten fingers, but what does the science say?October 13, 2020 3:32 pm
Is matcha good for you?
Advocates of traditional medicine certainly think so. Green tea has been used for centuries as a curative in Chinese medicine in particular.
Li Shizhen, of the Ming Dynasty, reported that ‘tea is cold and lowers the fire’.(1) In short, tea was thought to be ‘cooling’ and effective in treating ailments like fevers and inflammation.
The world of scientific research is only now starting to catch up with the traditional wisdom of Chinese medicine when it comes to green tea. Luckily, thanks to its long history of use to improve health and wellbeing, it has been the subject of lots of scientific research. The results of these studies provide us with some empirical evidence for green tea’s health benefits.
Matcha, as only one specific type of green tea, has been studied slightly less than the green tea category as a whole, but there’s still plenty of literature which calls out its specific health benefits.
Before we get into the benefits of matcha, let’s take a look at what makes matcha different from green tea as a whole.
What is the difference between matcha and green tea?
Matcha is green tea. Most types of tea, be they white, black, oolong or green, come from the same plant, called Camellia sinensis. It’s a little shrub, under two metres tall, with characteristic bright green leaves with serrated edges.
What separates green teas from your morning cup of English Breakfast is the way the leaves have been processed. In the case of matcha, there are also differences in how the plant is grown.
It helps to think of matcha like a very fine wine. To produce a very high quality wine, environmental factors such as the soil quality, climate and humidity come into play, producing grapes with a superior flavour. The same is true of matcha; the Camellia sinensis plant is grown in regions with rich soil and a friendly climate, which helps the tea buds grow into flavourful leaves.
What’s more, farmers who intend to produce matcha tea carefully shade the Camellia sinensis plants in the weeks prior to the harvest. This encourages the young leaves to produce lots of chlorophyll, which gives them a vivid green colour. If you compare the colour of matcha to the colour of other green teas, you should be able to see a clear difference in the hue: the matcha will be much brighter and more vibrant than other teas, thanks to the chlorophyll.
How matcha is processed
Black teas are made by first drying and then oxidising the tea leaves (turning them black). Green teas, on the other hand, are usually simply steamed to preserve their freshness, and then dried. You would drink these kinds of green tea in an infusion, by steeping the leaves in hot water and then removing them.
Matcha is different here, too.
To make matcha, only the youngest, finest leaves of the plant are plucked. They are quickly steamed and hand-tossed to dry them. Next, the farmers undertake the laborious process of removing all the stems, veins and twiggy bits from the leaves, leaving what is known as ‘tencha’.
Next, they stone-grind the tencha very slowly, to make sure the friction of the grinding process doesn’t heat up the matcha and change its flavour.
Once all this is completed, you have a very fine, bright green powder called matcha.
Instead of drinking it in an infusion, matcha should be consumed by whisking the powder into hot water using a special bamboo whisk known as a chasen. That means that when you’re drinking matcha, you’re consuming the entire leaf, and have a better chance of absorbing the goodies within.
In essence: you can expect all the health benefits of green tea in general when you drink matcha, plus some extras.
Now you know how to differentiate matcha from other green teas, let’s take a look at matcha’s health benefits.
Matcha contains powerful antioxidants
Matcha is perhaps most famous for being chock-full of antioxidants.
Your body naturally produces molecules called ‘free radicals’ during your normal metabolic processes. This happens when oxygen molecules (usually found in pairs – O2) are split up. They don’t like to be separated, though, and whizz around your cells until they can find another partner to link up with.
It’s completely normal to have some free radicals in your system. However, when there are too many – often due to environmental factors like pollution, smoking or stress – they can start to cause damage in your cells. This is called ‘oxidative stress’.
Consuming antioxidants can help prevent this damage.
Green tea is high in a powerful type of antioxidant called catechins. One kind of catechin in particular is thought to be responsible for lots of green tea’s healthful effects: epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG.
'Scientific studies have demonstrated that EGCG has lots of benefits for your health thanks to its ability to fight free radicals. It’s an anti-inflammatory, can help prevent heart attacks, and can even help inhibit ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.(2)'
Unsurprisingly, drinking matcha, which contains the whole tea leaf, gives you a higher dose of EGCG than drinking a regular green tea infusion.
In fact, one study in 2003 looked specifically at the levels of EGCG in matcha tea versus regular green tea. The researchers found that matcha contained 137 times the amount of EGCG in the control green tea, and more than three times the largest literature value of other green teas.(3)
It can keep you awake – without the jitters
In recent years, lots of people have begun to swap out their morning coffee for a matcha, or a matcha latte, instead.
Matcha makes a good swap for coffee because it naturally contains caffeine, just like coffee, so it will have a similar energising effect.
However, there is typically less caffeine in a cup of matcha – about 70mg – than in a cup of coffee, which can contain anything between 95 and 200mg, depending on the beans and roast.(4)(5)
If you are a regular coffee drinker, you’ll know that although good quality coffee can offer health benefits, your morning americano can have its downsides. Among them, the jittery feeling you get when the caffeine hits your bloodstream, and the subsequent ‘caffeine crash’ and feeling of exhaustion that follows.
The l-theanine and caffeine duo
Unlike coffee, matcha also contains another substance called l-theanine.(6) This is an amino acid which is thought to have the potential to provide a range of health benefits – more on that below – but the combination of caffeine and l-theanine is particularly special.
L-theanine moderates the effects of caffeine on the body. This means that you will still feel more alert if you swap coffee for matcha, but its effects will seem more gentle and even, as opposed to a big energy spike followed by a crash.
One study found that the combination of caffeine and l-theanine improved alertness and performance in ‘attention-switching tasks’, but not quite as much as caffeine alone.(7)
That said, l-theanine has plenty more benefits in store that make this a worthwhile concession.
Matcha helps to reduce stress
A drink that boosts your energy like coffee, but works to reduce stress and anxiety? It sounds almost too good to be true.
Yet, a review of 49 separate studies showed that l-theanine, that special amino acid that helps to attenuate the effects of caffeine, also has a positive effect on your mental wellbeing.(7)
One study in 2018 found that participants who consumed matcha reported less anxiety than a control group.(8) While this is promising information, the study found that the effect varied depending on the concentrations of l-theanine, caffeine, EGCG and an amino acid called arginine, meaning that different teas may produce different effects.
A year later, another study was conducted with 30 participants, looking at the effects of l-theanine on a range of symptoms related to stress and anxiety. These included monitoring the participants’ sleep quality and their own assessment of their mood. The study found that sleep quality and symptoms of depression and anxiety improved after the participants were given l-theanine.(8)
L-theanine also counts improved focus, memory, and a better ability to ignore distractions among its impressive health benefits.(7)
Matcha can help you control your weight
Matcha’s metabolism-boosting benefits are commonly cited as a way to help you control your weight. The scientific data on matcha’s effects on your body’s ability to oxidise fat stores is limited, but seems to back up the hypothesis that matcha boosts your metabolism.
One study looked at how matcha affected the physiological response of a group of 13 female volunteers. The researchers asked each participant to drink matcha the day before, and then two hours prior to taking a brisk 30-minute walk. The women who had consumed matcha oxidised (burned) more fat during their walk than a control group of volunteers who had not drunk matcha.
Researchers concluded that this effect was probably due to the combination of caffeine and catechins in matcha.(9)
It’s important to bear in mind that a group of 13 is quite a small sample size, and some other small studies have had mixed results.
However, a recent review of eleven separate studies on green tea and weight loss management found that across the included studies, green tea had been shown to have a statistically significant effect on weight loss. It similarly affected people’s ability to maintain their new weight after a period of weight loss.(10)
At Erbology we believe that no one thing can provide a ‘quick fix’ when it comes to health – or, indeed, weight loss. Drinking matcha if you have an unhealthy diet is unlikely to make a big difference.
That said, if you already have a healthy lifestyle, or you’d like to move towards adopting one, matcha may just help you achieve or maintain the weight you’d like.
It might even help you live longer
One study in 2006 looked at death rates in Japanese people over several years compared with how much green tea they drank.
It followed the study’s participants over the course of 11 years (for non-cause-specific mortality) and seven years (for cause-specific mortality).
The study found that there was an inverse correlation between green tea consumption and mortality, meaning that the more green tea the participants drank, the less likely they were to die over the study period. The correlation was even stronger with cardiovascular disease, and particularly stroke.(11)
The results appear to be backed up by another study published in 2015.(12)
It seems that drinking matcha can help you to feel better in the present while also having some promising benefits for your future health, too.
Keen to try matcha?
As with all types of tea, there are lots of different qualities of matcha on the market. We have a few recommendations for how to pick the right matcha for you.
Firstly, always shop organic. If you’re hoping to see the effects of matcha on your health, avoid any producers which use pesticides or chemicals on their plants. Our Ceremonial Grade Matcha powder is sourced from small farmers just outside Kyoto, Japan, and is 100% organic.
Next, decide how you’d like to drink matcha. If you would like to drink it in the traditional way, just with water, you should choose the highest possible grade – also known as ‘ceremonial grade’ matcha.
If you want to try it in baking or smoothies, try a culinary grade. The two grades taste quite different, as they are intended to be used either alone or in combination with other flavours.
You can find out more about the different qualities of matcha, and how to make different kinds of matcha tea, in our article ‘What is Ceremonial Matcha?’.
In the meantime, you can rest assured that both traditional use and modern scientific evidence indicates that matcha is good for your health. Whisking yourself up a warming cup of matcha is not only a fun and exotic addition to your routine, it’s also a great way to take care of yourself, body and mind.
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