From matcha lattes to vibrant green hued smoothie bowls, matcha is having a health hipster moment, but in Japan it’s been drunk for centuries. Here’s why, whether or not it’s actually good for you and what not to bother with

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If you’ve ever ordered a matcha latte in an achingly cool coffee shop (this tends to be the natural habitat of matcha powder in the UK), you’ll know full well that you didn’t leave with much change from £5. Just why is this foamy emerald concoction so spendy, and what exactly is it doing to justify its hefty price tag? Here’s the lowdown on one of the most vibrant natural health powders at all, plus how to spot a phony matcha. Because if you’re paying for your morning brew with a crisp note, you want to know exactly where that’s going.

What is matcha?

Nutritionist Rosie Millen  explains matcha in a nutshell:

“Matcha is derived from a plant called Camellia Sinensis, which is the same plant that green tea is sourced from. While green tea leaves usually come in the form of a tea bag, matcha is in powder form. Matcha is actually 100 per cent green tea leaves that have been ground into a fine powder.”

So what makes the ground green tea leaves more valuable from a health and financial p.o.v? Registered Nutritionist Daniel O’Shaughnessy  highlights what sets matcha apart from the standard teas in your caddy:

“When making matcha, the tea plants are covered for 20–30 days before harvesting to avoid direct sunlight. This increases chlorophyll production, boosting the amino acid content of the leaves and giving the plant a darker green colour. Once the tea leaves are collected, the stems and veins are removed and the leaves are ground up into a fine powder, known as matcha. As such, matcha contains nutrients from the entire tea leaf, which means that it has more antioxidants than typically found in green tea.”

So the labour intensive production method might be worth it for an ample serving of antioxidants, but given that green tea has such a heavenly rep healthwise, how much more are we really gaining from drinking the green stuff in powder form? The matcha connoisseurs at Teapigs  emphasise the difference between bagged leaves and the powdered sort:

“When you drink regular green tea, you throw away the leaves afterwards, which is a bit like boiling spinach, throwing away the spinach and just drinking the water– you will get some of the nutrients, but you’re throwing away the best bit. With matcha, you mix the powder into liquid and ingest the whole tea leaf, so you’re consuming every little bit of that lovely green good stuff.”

A ‘drink your greens’ situation, and it gets better...

The health benefits of matcha

Anything boasting high levels of antioxidants is veering into superfood territory, but matcha is particularly worthy of super endorsements according to pharmacist and co-founder of Victoria Health Shabir Daya :

“Fresh green tea leaves are unusually rich in antioxidants called polyphenols which may constitute nearly 30 per ceny of the dry leaf weight. Polyphenols exist as a series of chemicals called catechins. Epigallocatechin (EGCG) happens to be the most powerful catechin found in tea. It is nearly 100 times more potent in its antioxidant properties than vitamins C and E, for example one cup of green tea alone is more potent in its antioxidant properties than a serving of strawberries, broccoli or carrots.”

We’re not saying you should ditch your daily servings of vegetables for a hot beverage, but given the potency of the antioxidants found in a single mug of matcha, you could do worse than add put the kettle on in that regard. Daniel confirms that, while further research is needed as to matcha’s precise health benefits, initial studies look promising:

“Studies of matcha and its components have unearthed a variety of benefits, showing that it can help protect the  liver , promote heart health and even aid in weight loss.

“Some research has shown matcha to support liver damage and decrease risk of liver disease , while matcha has been shown to support healthy cholesterol levels and other heart disease factors.”

As for those weight loss claims, the Teapigs team affirm that there may be something in it:

“Scientific studies are looking at the effect that green tea may have on the body's thermogenesis (the rate that it burns calories) and its impact on fat oxidation during exercise.”

The jury’s still out on matcha’s slimming potential , but one area where matcha has been utilised for centuries is focus and concentration- Daniel reports that matcha is known to support brain function including reaction times, memory and attention span, as the Teapigs experts attest:

“Matcha contains the amino acid L-theanine, and lots of research has been conducted exploring how l-theanine can promote alpha brain waves, which helps with concentration and alertness. This is likely why Buddhist monks drink it to help with meditation.”

Which they have done for donkeys years according to Shabir:

“Despite the rich history behind Chinese tea making, the most superior green tea is Japanese matcha. Made from the finest, youngest leaves of the first harvesting days in Japan, this tea secures a special place in the Japanese tea ceremony called ‘chado’. This unique form of green tea was thought to have been introduced into Japan by a monk returning from China.”

Shabir conveys that it remains trendy in Tokyo and beyond to this day:

“Until recently, virtually all matcha has been consumed within Japan, where it’s particularly popular among students who are cramming for exams. In Japan, Matcha is as common a flavour as chocolate or strawberry. In supermarkets, matcha powder is available as a topping or flavour for everything from ice cream to cakes and chocolate bars.”

Clearly tucking into a matcha muffin isn’t the healthiest or most beneficial way to get your catechin fix. Here’s your guide to premium ground green tea prep and consumption…

What to look for when buying matcha

The first thing you’ll notice is the price tag- it’s likely a double figure situation if you’re buying a tin to take home. You pay handsomely for those leafy antioxidants, but if you are going to shell out, it’s worth saving up for the best that you can afford. Daniel underlines why:

“Ideally you would choose organic to mitigate the possible exposure to contaminants like pesticides, chemicals and even arsenic found in the soil where the tea plants are grown.

“Look for matcha that comes directly from Japan. Nishio city in the Aichi prefecture and Uji city in the Kyoto prefecture are considered the top producing areas. My personal favourite is from Ipodo .”

Shabir favours Teapigs matcha , for a host of reasons:

“Teapigs organic matcha undergoes strict testing by the Japanese authorities to ensure that it does not contain any radiation or toxic levels of metals found in other matcha teas grown near industrial development.

“The tea leaves are grown under three layers of cover for the last two weeks of cultivation to produce lots of chlorophyll which is an excellent energy booster. Skilled farmers harvest only the youngest leaves without any stems and veins, which can dilute the nutritional value and affect the taste. Teapigs organic matcha is ground in the traditional method using granite stones in a controlled environment, which also helps to minimise nutrient loss. Many other brands use a pulverisation process that causes friction causing a loss of nutrients.”

Whether you follow Daniel or Shabir’s brew recommendations, Daniel has a few pointers on what not to buy:

“A high quality matcha is a fine powder, akin to loose eyeshadow in texture, whereas lower quality ones can have a courser feel. Look out for one that’s a nice bright green colour, meaning that it has more chlorophyll in the leaf. Also, the cheaper varieties are likely to taste quite bitter- you’re aiming for a sweet, smooth taste.”

You’re shopping around for matcha, but if you’re considering swapping out your usual tea or coffee for a green alternative, can you expect the same buzz?

The caffeine content of matcha

Alongside a greater antioxidant load than your average green tea, you’re also getting a stronger caffeine jolt, which may or may not be a bonus, depending on your relationship with caffeine . Daniel crunches the numbers:

“Matcha has more caffeine than green tea, which could be a good or bad thing depending on how sensitive to caffeine you are. Matcha contains 35mg of caffeine per 1/2 teaspoon, which would be your average serving. That said, like green tea, it also contains l-theanine, which promotes calmness and helps you to avoid the crash that typically follows caffeine consumption, Also, as a yardstick, a regular cup of coffee contains roughly 70-75mg of caffeine.

“If after consuming matcha you experience symptoms such as  insomnia , appetite loss and feelings of irritability, it could be that you have a very low tolerance, or no tolerance at all, of caffeine, and given that matcha is higher in caffeine than many other teas, it might be best to swerve matcha for something less potent.”

Otherwise, if you’ve got the greenlight on the caffeine front, here’s what to with that pea green powder, because it can be quite the lumpy taskmaster.

How to drink matcha

Daniel’s on barista duty:

“Traditionally you would sift 1-2 tsp of match into your cup and then add 20ml of water and mix together with a bamboo whisk. You can then add more water as you go.”

You can buy battery powered whisks if time is of the essence, and to make it even more interesting try blending it into juices, smoothies and yogurt or making a matcha porridge. Whizzing it into hot milk (of the nut, oat or dairy variety) works particularly well, and lo and behold, here’s a recipe for the perfect matcha latte by the folk at Teapigs:

“To make a matcha latte just add 1/2 a teaspoon of matcha powder to an inch of hot water, whisk until smooth and top up with hot frothy milk. Add honey or sugar to sweeten if required. It’s a good alternative to having a traditional coffee latte because matcha gives you a slow release of energy over the course of four to six hours rather than the rush of energy (followed by a crash) that you tend to get with coffee. The bright green colour is a conversation starter too.”

It’s a Marmite style beverage from both a taste and aesthetic perspective, but don’t knock it until you’ve sipped it.

Matcha drawbacks

Other than the price, or potentially buying a dud, there aren’t many, although Daniel warns that matcha can cause tummy trouble on occasion:

“Consuming matcha may increase your stomach acid so ideally it should be drunk with a meal and not on an empty stomach, particularly if you are sensitive to reflux or have ulcers.”

There’s also the caffeine considerations to add in as above, which are especially relevant if you’re pregnant (the NHS  advises limiting caffeine intake to 200mg a day during pregnancy). Otherwise, get practising the wacky green latte art. Not sure that that’s what the monks meant it for, but you do you.

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Follow Daniel on Twitter  @NkdNutrition , Anna  @AnnaMaryHunter  and Rosie  @ms_nutritionist