The brightly colored powdered green tea has become popular among health-conscious consumers. Does it have any nutritional benefits?
Q: Is matcha healthy?
Walk into any coffee shop or health food store and you’re almost guaranteed to find this bright jade-colored powdered green tea. It’s mixed into lattes, milkshakes, sodas, hot chocolates, smoothies — and even in desserts like ice creams and brownies. It’s recommended by many as an antioxidant-packed superfood that can prevent cancer, improve memory, and reduce stress and anxiety. That’s enough to persuade almost anyone to drink matcha. But does it actually live up to the hype?
What is matcha?
Matcha is a type of powdered green tea that has been traditionally used in tea ceremonies in Japan, and has become popular in the United States and elsewhere. It comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis) as other caffeinated teas, and is cultivated in an unusual way: The tea plant is shaded from excessive sunlight for much of its growing period so that it can produce more amino acids and biologically active compounds, like chlorophyll and theanine. Once the leaves are harvested, they’re ground into a fine powder.
Does matcha have health benefits?
Whereas other green tea leaves are usually steeped whole in hot water, “matcha is much more concentrated in terms of the ingredients because it’s made from ground whole tea leaves,” said Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology and chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
And while the research on its health benefits is not definitive, experts say that matcha does contain high amounts of potentially beneficial compounds.
Antioxidants. “As we age or as we’re exposed to things in the environment, like ultraviolet light or carcinogens, we end up with reactive oxygen species and they do harmful things like damage our cellular membranes,” said Jamie Alan, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University.
Antioxidants, which are abundant in matcha, are substances that “neutralize” those harmful molecules, Dr. Alan said, preventing a “whole cascade of damaging downstream events.” The tea therefore may theoretically help protect the body’s cells from damage and reduce the risk of certain health problems like heart disease or cancer, Dr. Hu and Dr. Alan said, though this has not been proven.
L-theanine. This unique amino acid, which can be found in green tea as well as certain mushrooms, is another component of matcha that experts highlight as potentially benefiting health. However, the evidence on how it might do so is weak, Dr. Hu said. Some small, placebo-controlled trials have suggested that L-theanine may improve cognitive performance and reduce stress. But there have been only animal studies and a few small trials in humans, both experts noted.
Caffeine. While most people might not think about caffeine’s health effects when drinking their morning cup of coffee, the evidence for its health benefits is fairly strong, Dr. Hu said. Studies have found, for instance, that caffeine can increase cognitive function and alertness and ramp up metabolism. And regular consumption of coffee — the primary source of caffeine for adults in the United States — has been associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, liver disease and age-related cognitive decline, Dr. Hu said.