Matcha Powder Health Benefits
Vs Green Tea Leaves
A Reality Check

What are the health benefits of matcha powder in comparison with green tea beverage? Popular myths debunked.



Popular wisdom holds that by consuming green tea whole, you get more of the antioxidants than you do in regular green tea.

To prove their points, matcha sellers often cite a 2003 study conducted by University of Colorado, which found that it contained 137 times as many antioxidants as a popular green tea beverage.

However, the same study also found that it contains antioxidants at least 3 times the rate of the largest literature value for other green teas.

Considering high grade green tea can often be infused 3 times to make 3 cups of tea, this almost implies that matcha powder contains as much antioxidant as green tea.

So, is drinking matcha healthier than drinking green tea? Or is the truth more complex than what the matcha sellers make or out to be?

2003 University of Colorado Study

Does matcha really contain 137 times more antioxidants compared to green tea?

It really depends on which green tea you are talking about. Tea bags contain much less antioxidant, because the leaves have been chopped into small pieces.

This kills the antioxidants. The large surface area promotes oxidization as antioxidants form compounds with the oxygen molecules in the air.

Now, you may be surprised to learn that the University of Colorado study cited above used a green tea bag sold by Starbuck as their sole experimental sample.

This is like comparing apples and oranges. They are comparing the lowest quality green tea with a premium quality matcha powder.

What this study shows is that one should avoid drinking low quality tea bags, and switch to a higher quality alternative. Whether this higher quality comes in the form of loose-leaf or matcha powder is really a matter of personal choice.

Whole-Leaf Is Not Healthier

Here is the argument: Green tea is so healthy, you should consume it whole. Since only a small proportion of tea leaves ever dissolve in water, the best way to ingest green tea is either to eat it, or to take matcha powder.

This argument is faulty for the following reasons:

  • The most important nutritional components in tea leaves are catechins, caffeine and theanine. These nutrients are flavorful as well as soluble, which explains why rich tasting teas often contain a high concentration of these compounds.

  • In the Far East, green tea leaves are infused at least 3 times, until the resulting tea tastes bland. So even though you are not eating the entire leaves, you are not missing out much.

  • The insoluble part of tea leaves consists mostly of proteins, fibers and carbohydrates. They have limited nutritional value. (Some Chinese tea experts even say they can be harmful.)

  • A tea infusion is healthier than eating a whole leaf, because tea plants accumulate contaminants from soil and water. These contaminants are usually much less soluble in water.

  • Thus drinking tea protects you from environmental impurities. When you are taking a lot of tea daily, this is important.

Premium Product

While green tea can range from very low to very high grade, matcha is relatively high grade.

A common pitfall is to compare a matcha with a low grade green tea commonly sold in the West. One is much more expensive than the other - they are simply not comparable.

Real matcha is grown in shaded conditions, a farming practice reserved only for the best of Japanese tea. This process slows the growth of tea plants and increases its theanine content.

Perhaps the single most reliable indicator of quality, theanine counter-balances the action of caffeine and has a calming effect on the body. Matcha tastes sweet and is slightly astringent. Like high grade green tea, it is harvested from the young buds in spring.

This, together with the labor intensive process of stone-grinding the dried leaves into powder, means that it is expensive.

Scientific studies comparing the chemical composition of matcha with other low grade green teas are not making a fair comparison.

How Much Antioxidant?

Now, this is what I gather from my wide readings so far: both matcha powder and the higher grade green teas contain approximately 100 milligrams of antioxidants per gram. However, unlike matcha, you have to steep green tea leaves several times until they run out of flavor.

According to Aiya Matcha, perhaps Japan's largest producer of bulk matcha powder, 1 gram of powder contains 119 milligrams of the six types of catechins.

A 2007 report published by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) compares nearly 400 foods for their antioxidants content. This catechin study found that 1 gram of green tea infused in 100 milliliters of water contains an average of 127 milligrams of catechins.

Now, Aiya Matcha is a matcha seller, so they have no reason to understate the antioxidant content of matcha. The USDA is a comprehensive study based on a large number of samples.

Therefore, I can safely conclude that there is no evidence that matcha powder contains a lot more antioxidants than green tea.

Conclusion

For a tea lover, I love matcha for its emerald green, rich flavors and ceremonial grace. If you are considering matcha as a health food, and as a replacement for a cup of high quality tea, I think you should go in with a more realistic expectation.

The bottom line is that both high grade green tea and matcha are made from young tea buds, and matcha suffers the disadvantage of the additional labor needed to stone-grind it into powder form.

Other disadvantages include storage, as powder is more susceptible to environmental degradation than loose-leaf tea. Caffeine can be an issue for some people, as even coffee drinkers have found it to be quite powerful.

Matcha is a delightful, even luxurious health food. But it is not 137 times healthier than similarly priced green tea.

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References

David J. Weiss and Christopher R. Anderton (2003). Determination of catechins in matcha green tea by micellar electrokinetic chromatography Journal of Chromatography A Volume 1011, Issues 1-2, 5 September 2003, Pages 173-180.

Aiya Matcha Tea. http://www.aiya-america.com/index.html

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