What is Matcha? – everything you need to know
Matcha is a tea that’s been enjoyed in Japan and China for centuries. It’s grown in Japan, with the Uji and Nishio provinces most famous for their produce. But what sets it apart from other teas? And how can we enjoy macha’s benefits?
What is matcha?
Matcha is different from normal tea in that it doesn’t infuse into water. The whole of the leaf is mixed into the drink. If you imagine other leafy greens such as broccoli and kale, drinking ordinary tea is the equivalent of boiling the vegetables, throwing them away and drinking the water that’s left over.
Matcha, instead, is a powder form whisked into water that’s just below boiling point. This means all of the goodness is kept in the drink and not dumped in a teabag.
How is matcha grown?
The powder is made by taking very young tea leaves and grinding them into a fine green powder. Matcha leaves grow in the shade, which increases its chlorophyll content. This is where the drink gets its distinctive verdant colouring from and many of its nutrients too.
By slowing its growth, the shade also means the leaves contain more amino acids. The careful structures built to keep the sun off the plants are thought to make them softer, sweeter and brighter too. The leaves are then picked, steamed, dried and the veins removed.
Traditionally the tea is ground in the dark to protect its nutrients with a granite stone, and the process can take hours for only a few grams, hence its higher cost.
How do you take matcha?
This powder is then usually whisked through hot water. There are special bamboo whisks that are traditionally used to do this. Liz has tried many and loves this one here.
Though it’s made of the same leaf, matcha does have a slightly different taste to green tea. Some report that it’s sweeter and creamier than regular tea and you may notice a slightly grassy smell and taste too. It’s often served with milk, but some recommend avoiding this as dairy can bind to the polyphenols (more on these later) and slightly reduce their bioavailability, although there are conflicting studies on this.
You can sweeten with a little honey if you find the taste just a bit too ‘grassy’! ‘Ceremonial’ matcha is a bit more expensive and made from the youngest leaves. It’s often reported to be more drinkable for beginners and less strong in flavour. Liz especially loves this one from Spring Blossom, which is organically grown and comes authentically from Japan.
For frothy matcha lattes, this kit makes light and creamy drinks with ease and can also be used for other frothy drinks, such as turmeric lattes and cappuccinos.
Enjoy it in food
Matcha powder isn’t just limited to hot drinks though, it’s a very versatile polyphenol powder. You can replace small amounts of flour in your baking with matcha to add a healthy kick to what you’re making, but be warned, it will turn it green! This works well in cakes and scones as well as breakfast pancakes. Some cafes now even serve matcha donuts…
Breakfasts can be boosted by adding matcha to oatmeal, granola and smoothies too. You can even buy matcha noodles to put in a soup or salad. For a treat, it also works brilliantly in ice cream and gives a uniquely tangy flavour. Matcha doesn’t last too long though, a few months at best, so best keep in the fridge to keep fresh.
Can you have too much?
The short answer for most people is no. It’s a very safe ingredient that has been used for its health and medicinal properties for centuries. Matcha does contain caffeine, though in lower levels than regular brewed coffee. If a serving size is one gram, then the recommended daily caffeine limit of 400mg is equivalent to 16 cups of matcha. Moderate drinking of matcha each day is very unlikely to have any adverse side effects.
What are the health benefits?
Many of the benefits of matcha come from its rich antioxidant qualities. It contains a reported three times as many of these than ordinary green tea, which is made of more mature tea leaves. These antioxidants are known as polyphenols and they work by helping to prevent the oxidative damage of excess free radicals in the body.
Heart and blood
There’s evidence that polyphenols can lower our blood sugar, by preventing the breakdown of starch into simple sugars. It may also help to stimulate insulin, the hormone used to shuttle sugar from your blood to our cells. This may help prevent diabetes further down the line.
Matcha contains a specific family of polyphenols called catechins that assist the body’s antioxidant activity. This can help to lower blood pressure and well as cholesterol, reducing the risk of complications such as heart disease and strokes. Polyphenols are also known anti-inflammatories, with inflammation being one of the leading risk factors of heart disease.
The amino acids in matcha are also thought to help with mood and motivation. Matcha is a rich source of a rare amino acid called L-theanine (found in green and black tea, and mushrooms). Animal studies show that this amino acid increases levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. These are our ‘happy’ brain chemicals that help reduce anxiety too. What’s more, children with ADHD have been shown to respond positively to a combination of caffeine and L-theanine (useful for regular tea drinkers to know).
Matcha contains a small amount of caffeine, more than regular tea but less than coffee. This may help us feel more awake and alert during the day if we drink it in the morning, but its moderate content is unlikely to leave you feeling jittery or unwell.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking matcha green tea once a day increases the rate that calories are burned, also called ‘thermogenesis.’
It was shown to increase the normal 8-10 percent range to as much as 35-43 percent every single day. This can help with weight loss and super power our workouts.
Skin and teeth
The tea is also thought to be good for our skin and mouths. It has antibacterial properties that help cleanse the gums and teeth, while also suppressing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria that causes cavities and gingivitis. An antioxidant in the catechin family called EGCG has also been found to reduce the bacteria that cause cavities.
Matcha’s antioxidant properties are also linked with slowed signs of skin ageing as they fight the unstable oxygen molecules associated with damaged cells and premature skin ageing.