Like goji berries, chia seeds, and other novelty “super edibles” before it, matcha is taking off. But amidst all the hype, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.
So, what is matcha?
Matcha is a type of green tea. Unlike bagged green tea, you buy matcha as a powder. But the differences don’t begin and end there.
Matcha is grown in the shade, which is said to reduce photosynthesis and increase amino acid levels in the plant. Once harvested, it’s quickly steamed to prevent oxidation and to retain a bright green hue. Then, the leaves are dried and ground into the powder that you can find in specialty shops or online.
The ceremonial tea has roots in China, but it has gained popularity among Zen Buddhists in Japan, where it’s most commonly credited as originating. Now, you can find it everywhere — but what good is matcha for your health?
Matcha is rich in catechins, a subclass of polyphenols, or antioxidants. Several other foods that have especially high catechin concentration have been labeled superfoods — such as red wine, dark chocolate, and some berries.
When compared with traditional green tea, matcha is loaded with catechins. Additionally, a study shows that matcha contains at least three times the amount of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), another beneficial polyphenol, than most other green teas. It’s here that we find the source of many matcha health claims.
Claims vs. Evidence
You only have to navigate to a website selling matcha to see a lengthy list of purported benefits: weight loss, improved mood, and even cancer prevention. But does the research back them up?
There is limited evidence that consumption of matcha tea can improve mood. One study on mice found that those exposed to EGCG had fewer markers of physical stress and chronic fatigue than those who didn’t receive the catechins. Another study that looked at the effects of green tea on insulin resistance and blood pressure found that improved mood was a byproduct of regular green tea consumption.
A study that examined the effects of EGCG supplementation on people’s heart disease risk factors found that regular intake of the catechins resulted in a “modest” reduction in diastolic blood pressure. The study subjects took capsules containing 400 milligrams of EGCG twice daily for eight weeks.
Evidence that the catechins in matcha can assist in weight loss efforts is limited. One very small study found that men who drank tea with 690 milligrams of catechins for 12 weeks had lower body weight, body fat, and waist circumference than men who didn’t. However, fewer than 40 men total participated in the study.
Improved Fat Metabolism
Some research suggests that green tea extract (including matcha) could play a role in boosting your ability to metabolize fat. Research has shown that drinking green tea can help enhance your metabolism of fat if followed by exercise, although most experts agree that the evidence is still too limited.
Researchers have drawn loose associations between increased green tea consumption and lower risks of certain types of cancers. In the lab, polyphenols in matcha including EGCG and others have shown anticancer activity — like inhibiting tumor growth, cancer cell invasiveness, and more. Tests on humans have been limited, but positive.
The Bottom Line: An Expert’s Take
Dr. Barry Sears, creator of The Zone Diet, agrees that all purported health claims of matcha aren’t entirely substantiated by the research. There are several possible reasons for this.
“All polyphenols are potentially useful in treating chronic conditions, but only if they enter the bloodstream at sufficient levels to alter the expression of inflammatory genes,” he says.
That level is more than 1,000 milligrams of polyphenols, “or 16 cups of green tea per day.”
Further, Dr. Sears says that according to existing research, “catechins are not as powerful as other polyphenols in altering inflammatory gene expression,” according to existing research. He gives catechins a grade B for “biological potency,” compared to a grade A for anthocyandins, another polyphenol class found in apples, grapes, and chocolate.
Still, Sears and others recognize that green tea is a healthy drink choice, and that drinking it or more concentrated matcha can help you increase your daily intake of polyphenols. And despite there being no definitive proof that matcha can deliver a laundry list of health cures, some of the research certainly hints at benefits.