Hoping to boost your energy, mood, metabolism and focus while lowering your disease risk? Then look no further than matcha tea. A member of the camellia sinensis (green tea) family, matcha really stands out from the regular green tea crowd for how it's grown, harvested, processed and prepared as well as for its health benefits.
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Shortly after they sprout, the tea leaves are covered with reed screens so they can be grown in the shade, which reduces the rate of photosynthesis. This process appears to increase the concentration of a number of the health-giving properties of the tea.
The harvest of the matcha tea begins 88 days after the first day of spring, generally in early May. The first harvest produces the highest-quality young leaves -- called the "first flush." Considered by connoisseurs as the finest in quality, taste and color, young matcha tea leaves are the chosen tea for traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.
After harvest, unlike other green teas, matcha leaves are steamed, which helps prevent oxidation and preserve the antioxidants in the tea. The matcha stems are removed and the leaves are carefully air-dried and ground into a very fine powder.
Steeping tea leaves in hot water makes regular green tea. Matcha tea is made by dissolving the fine powder into hot water, so you're essentially consuming the entire tea leaf. The ideal water temperature is around 175 degrees. Traditionally, a special bamboo whisk called a chasen is used to properly stir and incorporate the powder into the water, but a milk frother will work fine too.
Matcha tea has a complex, rich, earthy, velvety-smooth and very slightly sweet umami flavor. If your matcha tastes bitter, it could be because you need to purchase a higher-quality tea or because the water was too hot during preparation.
Serious tea drinkers should consider buying high-quality ceremonial-grade tea and investing in an electronic teakettle that allows you to select a brew temperature. If you don't have a special kettle, just bring your water to boil and allow it to cool for four to five minutes before adding the powder.
Matcha also works well in other preparations beyond tea: Adding the powder to smoothies and other recipes will lend a green hue, tea flavor and a long list of health benefits.
The Health Benefits
Green tea is in a class of foods called superfoods -- because it delivers high levels of nutrients and offers powerful disease-lowering benefits. Matcha tea supports good health in a number of ways:
Metabolism: Matcha creates a thermogenic effect, which means it boosts the body's metabolic rate so you burn more calories. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the catechins in tea reduced body fat and lowered LDL cholesterol. It's also been shown to support healthy blood sugar levels by slowing the conversion of carbs into simple sugars. This is an important benefit, because it is estimated that more than 50 percent of Americans currently struggle with blood sugar instability.
Detoxification: Matcha tea supports the body's detoxification channels in a number of ways. The green color comes from a compound called chlorophyll -- which is found in matcha in higher concentrations because it is grown in the shade. Chlorophyll supports the body to remove toxins and heavy metals.
Alkalinity: Unlike coffee, which is acidic, chlorophyll is alkaline, which supports a healthy pH in the body. The alkalinity also means that matcha can be gentler on the digestion.
Brain Function: Buddhist monks have used matcha for centuries to help them meditate for long periods of time. Matcha contains high amounts of the amino acid L-theanine, which can improve concentration by promoting a calm focus.
Mood: The high levels of L-theanine may also reduce anxiety and support a balanced mood.
Energy: Matcha tea contains a little more than twice as much caffeine as regular green tea, but less than coffee. But the caffeine is balanced out by the L-theanine, so it delivers a calm, focused energy, without that jittery feeling.
Immune System: Green tea is rich in polyphenol catechins, which are powerful antioxidants and free-radical scavengers. One of the most potent of the catechins is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which has been found in studies to offer protective effects against cancer.
A 2011 study found that the amount of EGCG in matcha was 137 times higher than traditional Chinese green tea.
Skin Health: The free-radical-destroying capacity of the polyphenols in matcha tea can protect your skin from environmental pollutants and UV damage to support antiaging and cancer prevention in the skin.
Oral Health/Breath: Matcha tea has antibacterial properties, so it supports good oral health and won't leave you with coffee breath!
Beware if you go for the matcha latte at your local coffee shop -- it's probably loaded with sugar and milk. Studies show that the catechins are less effective when consumed with protein, so matcha tea is best consumed alone. If you want a latte, skip the sugar and go with a nondairy milk.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever tried matcha tea as a beverage or added to foods? What are some different preparations of matcha tea that you've tried? Would you ever trade your coffee for matcha tea? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Sara Vance is a nutritionist and author of the book The Perfect Metabolism Plan. A regular guest on local San Diego television stations, Sara also offers consultations, corporate nutrition, school programs and online courses. Visit her blog and download her free eBook at rebalancelife.com.