What is Matcha?
The name comes from the combination of two Japanese words matsu (to wipe or rub) and cha (tea). That describes how matcha is made, as the leaves were traditionally rubbed with stones and turned into a fine powder. Both matcha and regular green tea come from the same Camellia sinensis species, but they are grown and processed in different ways.
The differences between green tea and matcha is that with the latter, the leaves are fully de-stemmed and prior to harvest, they are grown in the shade for up to 20 days. That causes the plant to make more chlorophyll – which gives the powder its vivid green colour. As a result, matcha tea has more antioxidants, caffeine, and L-theanine versus regular green tea.
Since its production requires more labour, historically this has not been a cheap beverage. Aside from royalty and aristocrats who could afford to drink it daily, the best matcha tea was called ceremonial grade; it was the first harvest and saved for special occasions. Zen monks aside, the frequency of drinking it may be comparable to how Westerners drink champagne at weddings, New Years, and other celebrations.
High Grade Matcha vs. Culinary Grade
The best matcha will have a vibrant green colour. Some manufacturers are misleading and call their product “ceremonial grade” when actually, it should be called ingredient or food grade. After you brew a cup of tea, even a novice can decipher between them. Pure organic ceremonial grade tastes smoother, because it’s made from the top leaves which are the softest. Since they have the most chlorophyll, the powder is a vibrant green.
Lower grade teas will be grittier due to the more mature leaves being used, as well as stem fragments which weren’t fully removed. A colour that’s more yellow-green, and they often have an astringent-like bitter taste which can cause an upset stomach. Those are the worst matcha teas to drink.
Make sure you know what the real version is before judging its flavour.
Preparing matcha is different to other teas. No bags or infusers are used. Since it’s ground to a fine powder, you drink all of the leaf. The traditional method of making it involves whisking the powder with a brush, after the hot water has been poured on top. You drink it out of a bowl.
The Benefits of Theanine
This non-dietary amino acid is almost exclusively found in the Camellia sinensis plant. It has been confirmed to cross the blood brain barrier. Research suggests it might offer neurological health benefits which could help offset the nervousness and restlessness which often go hand in hand with caffeine consumption.
In other words, rather than causing anxiety, matcha may actually reduce it.
In a double blind study involving 16 people, a 200 mg dosage of theanine beat placebo during resting conditions. The same subjects were also given 1 mg of alprazolam (Xanax) and the theanine also beat it too!
“With regard to the tranquil–troubled subscale of the VAMS, L-theanine significantly reduced subjective anxiety in comparison with alprazolam and placebo.”
Relaxation Without Sleepiness
On one hand we want to be energised, yet on the other we want to be relaxed. Is it possible to have both at the same time?
One of the most popular uses for matcha green tea powder is relaxation. That’s not just some recent fad, either. It’s a benefit which has been hailed throughout its history dating back to the Zen monks. However given that there’s little clinical research on it, for now it remains unproven.
That said, in the brains of rats, theanine has been found to increase serotonin and increase norepinephrine, both of which are believed to correlate with relaxation. Scientists in Seoul measured the brainwaves of 20 men (18 to 30 years old) after taking placebo or theanine.
“…there were significant differences of occipital alpha power values between placebo and test groups with high anxiety.”
The conclusion was that it promoted the release of alpha waves, which causes relaxation.
A study involving 98 boys (8 to 12 years old) with ADHD were given L-theanine supplements over a period of 6 weeks.
The branded product used, Suntheanine, involved a dosage of four 100 mg chewable tablets – two taken at breakfast and two taken after school (400 mg per day total).
Their sleep quality was measured using a wrist device (to record movement at night) and a Pediatric Sleep Questionnaire (PSQ).
The first sentence of the study’s conclusion claimed:
“This study demonstrates that 400 mg daily of L-theanine is safe and effective in improving some aspects of sleep quality in boys diagnosed with ADHD.”
It’s worth pointing out those were pure theanine supplements. Drinking matcha before bed would be a terrible idea, since it also contains caffeine.
In 2017, Wageningen University (Netherlands) published a review of 49 human studies which had been conducted to date about how green tea may affect mood and cognition. This is what they concluded:
“These studies provided reliable evidence showing that L-theanine and caffeine have clear beneficial effects on sustained attention, memory, and suppression of distraction. Moreover, L-theanine was found to lead to relaxation by reducing caffeine induced arousal.”
That being said, these purported relaxation, anti-anxiety, and sleep-enhancing benefits are still unproven, as no government has recognised them. Clinical research needs to be done to know for sure.
However the findings at least suggest the possibility that matcha might be better for you, as coffee and yerba mate do not contain L-theanine.
Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of calories you burn per day just by existing. Not those burned from exercise or other activities, but rather the basic fuel your body needs to survive.
As you get older, your BMR falls off a cliff. That’s why you were slim as a teen and as an adult, you are statistically more likely to be fat than not.
The good news is that there is a proven way to boost your BMR and that is through high intensity physical activity. Anaerobic exercise has been found to cause “significantly elevated” metabolism as long as 38 hours after working out.
When it comes to foods, green tea is perhaps the only one which has compelling research to suggest it might boost metabolism.
How to Store
Yes, matcha can go bad and quite quickly. If the powder is left in an unopened container, it will oxidise. The result…
It will taste bad, creating a bitter and less potent flavour, and the antioxidant content will be reduced. The best way to store matcha is in an airtight container, preferably one which is opaque to minimise light exposure. Both air and light will degrade the phytonutrients.
Refrigeration is not required, but a lower temperature will prolong how long it’s good for. While the shelf life expires a year out or further, after opening and being exposed to air, it will normally go bad within 2 to 4 weeks at room temperature.
Is Matcha Safe?
The biggest problem with this tea can affect everyone, including those who are healthy. Especially toddlers, kids, and pregnant women. This is because of lead contamination in tea.
The reason matcha is more dangerous than regular green tea is because you are eating the leaves. Most of the lead content actually stays in the leaf when you steep a bag, so the amount of lead you are ingesting from filtered tea is naturally minimised. You’re more likely to overdose with this powder.
Japanese vs. Chinese Matcha
Until that monk brought the seeds over to Japan in the 11th century A.D., China was its origin and even today, continues to be the biggest producer.
How much? According to a United Nation agricultural report, 83% of exported green tea is grown in China and less than 1% comes from Japan.
Even though Japan is responsible for 9.5% of world production, they export very little – only 0.6% of global consumption comes from Japanese grown leaves.
Vietnam exports more than they consume – they’re 9.9% of global exports. Indonesia is 3.5%. Virtually no green tea is grown for commercial purposes in the USA or Australia. While India is large producer of tea, the consume 70% of it themselves and what they do export is in other forms.
How much of those green tea exports are in the matcha form is unknown, or at least there isn’t sound verifiable reporting this premium version.
Far less than 1% of global green tea production is in the form of matcha.
Even for Japan, which is the biggest producer, true stone ground quality pure matcha represents only 1.1% of the country’s production. That’s according to the Feb 2013 issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.
Even though China didn’t used to grow much, given its surge in popularity during last several years, they’re capitalising on this superfood by ramping up production. How much exactly is unknown, but it’s clear based on the number of teas which now say grown/made in China.
When you buy it, you’re almost certainly getting Japanese or Chinese grown.
There are a few niche suppliers outside of those countries, but they’re few and far between. You probably won’t find Korean matcha green tea powder for sale at a place like Whole Foods!
Lead Free Matcha Tea?
On average, green teas have the least amount of lead. However the range of how much they have varies way more than black tea and “scented” mixtures, like jasmine and chai.
How much lead there is in this tea can be quite high. One study done about a decade ago tested 1,225 different samples grown throughout China and here is the percent which exceeded 2 mcg per gram:
- 24% of green tea
- 32% of scented tea
- 53% of oolong tea
- 59% of black tea
“The present study shows the extent of Pb [lead] contamination in Chinese teas, with a considerable proportion (32%) of the samples exceeding the Chinese MPC [maximum permissible concentration].”
That’s right, forget FDA limit for a minute. Here we have nearly one-third of the tea exceeding the Chinese government’s own threshold for maximum lead content!
And that was in a report done by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences… research conducted in and by the Chinese!
The word matcha is found nowhere in the report, but they offer these other clues…
Both “premium” grade teas and those with younger leaves were found to contain less lead. The best matcha tea is made using the youngest leaves, from the top of the plant. It’s called ceremonial grade. The above charts suggest that for a crop grown in contaminated soil, the high quality matcha grade leaves will contain less lead than other forms of green tea… even when they’re grown in the same soil.
That’s good news for this superfood. But would it be safer to buy from Japan? Another, albeit older study, measured 139 Japanese green tea samples for lead and cadmium found that none exceeded 2 mcg per gram. The results ranged from 0.11 to 1.93.
So is matcha bad for you if it comes from China? Not automatically, but the science seems to infer it’s more likely to be. A cup or two may be harmless, but drinking contaminated tea daily would be too much.
In short, it’s not that Chinese tea is always dangerous, but even a USDA certified organic seal doesn’t mean it was grown in a region safe from pollution. This is why we would recommend sticking with Japanese sources.
Where in Japan is Green Tea Grown?
A low end brand like Starbucks, Nestle, Jamba Juice, or Trader Joe’s matcha green tea might not even clarify the country of origin, let alone the specific region in Japan (if that’s where it is coming from).
Even when those brands do specify where their teas and lattes come from, they may be sourcing it from multiple regions within the country.
Fortunately when it comes to radiation risk, this probably doesn’t matter. Here’s why…
All of the major tea producing regions are far east of Fukushima!
Shizuoka is by far the largest region, as nearly half of Japanese green tea is grown there. The westernmost farms in Shizuoka are still about 250 miles away (400 km) from Fukushima.
So is Japanese green tea safe from radiation? Yes. Whether it’s the regular kind or matcha, the risk of elevated levels is quite small.
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