Matcha, the trendy green tea beverage, is nothing new. In fact, it has been an integral part of Japanese tea ceremonies for centuries. It’s only in the past year or so that it’s made the move from zen to chic and started showing up in hip coffee shops. And now matcha is going mainstream — you can even find your matcha latte fix at your local Starbucks (careful, this coffee chain adds sweeteners to its mix).
Matcha is a powder made from green tea leaves. With regular green tea (whether it’s loose leaf or in bags), you steep the leaves and then remove them. But matcha is a fine powder that you actually whisk into the water so that you consume — rather than toss — the ground-up leaves. And that’s the difference that accounts for matcha’s many health claims. “Consuming the whole leaf means you are getting a more potent source of nutrients than you would in regular green tea,” says Alissa Rumsey, R.D., spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But quality and freshness are key. A low price tag is a red flag that the matcha may not be top quality.”
The superstar nutrients in matcha are the antioxidants known as polyphenols; those are the same ones found in other teas, but you get a much higher dose of them when you drink matcha. “Polyphenols in tea have been studied extensively and are tied to protection against heart disease and cancer, a decrease in blood pressure, and they aid with blood sugar stabilization,” says Rumsey. A cup of matcha will also provide about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee (and three times more than brewed green tea), but matcha lovers say their drink provides a much mellower buzz. That is thanks to the fact that the caffeine kick is combined with L-theanine, an amino acid linked to stress and anxiety reduction. “People describe the matcha buzz as an ‘alert calm,’ rather than the jittery feeling you can get from too much coffee,” says Rumsey.
One downside of too much matcha is that tea leaves often contain lead (especially those grown in China) because the plants absorb it from the environment. When you steep and toss tea leaves, you also toss out most of the lead, but because matcha means consuming the whole leaf, you will be ingesting more lead. “For that reason, I would recommend not drinking more than one cup a day,” says Rumsey. You also need to be on the lookout for added sugars in your matcha. Because the tea has a strong and somewhat bitter flavor, many matcha latte mixes use sugar to mellow out the taste. “In fact, sugar is often listed as the first ingredient, ahead of the tea itself,” says Rumsey. (And a grande matcha latte from Starbucks packs a whopping 55 grams of sugar!)
Even trendier than drinking matcha is cooking with it. You can use powdered matcha in recipes ranging from smoothies to stir-fries. And matcha baked goods are all the rage. (If you see bright-green cookies or doughnuts at your local bakery, matcha’s probably the secret ingredient.) And while adding the antioxidant-rich powder to your recipes can provide a great nutrient boost, don’t kid yourself into thinking that sprinkling cake with a bit of matcha turns it into health food!
David’s Tea Mocha Matcha (pictured at top): This powder is sweetened with a hint of coconut nectar and mocha flavoring for a new spin on the traditional green drink.
Trader Joe’s Matcha Green Tea Latte Mix: Sugar is the first ingredient in this mix, and a serving does have 13 grams of the sweet stuff — about the same as a mug of hot cocoa.
Vosges Matcha Green Tea & Spirulina Super Dark Chocolate Bar: Dark chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants — mix in some matcha and get an even bigger boost.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.