Health benefits of Matcha
The real health benefits of matcha green tea powder are widely publicized on the internet, and many companies are taking advantage of these claims.
When you drink matcha tea, you are drinking the actual leaf itself (in powdered form) instead of water that has been infused with the essence of the tea leaf. What does this mean? Very simply, you get a lot more of the essences of the tea leaf when you drink it whole.
The real story
Is it really healthier? Probably. But, there are many types of green tea leaves, and each has its own properties. Here are the differences:
Shading vs. non-shading
Shading the tea leaf prevents catechins from being formed, and results in an increased amount of L-theanine amino acids. Catechins are antioxidants that are, on one hand, healthy for you, and on the other hand, cause bitterness or astringency. Matcha tea leaves (tencha leaves) are shaded the longest of all green tea leaves therefore have the least amount of catechins for spring-harvested first flush leaves. Of course, you don’t drink the entire leaf when you drink other types of green tea (unless you are drinking powdered sencha).
Seasons: Spring vs. summer, autumn
Spring is when the most amount of essences are infused by the plant into the each leaf. Therefore a spring harvested matcha is much more potent than an autumn harvested matcha. If you are paying less than $50 for 100 grams of matcha, most likely this is not a spring harvested matcha. The matcha powder harvested in the spring is most likely called ceremony grade while other seasons go toward kitchen-grade or industrial-grade uses.
Autumn harvested tencha leaves when ground into matcha also have the least amount of caffeine though the levels of catechin are lower. For those who are sensitive, autumn harvested green tea may be a good balance between low caffeine and higher levels of catechin (generally the leaves for autumn harvests are left longer in the sun).
How steeping methods affect anti-oxidant levels
Catechins are infused into the water at higher temperatures, whereas theanine amino acids come out at lower temperatures. A good comparison test would be to steep two different teas at the same high temperature and taste to see which is more bitter. That tea is likely to have more catechins.
How tea plant cultivars affect anti-oxidant levels
Think of cultivars as different people. Same species, but different height, hair color, etc. When a cultivar is identified to have certain properties (i.e. a specific set of DNA), it can then be propagated via cuttings. The entire field of plants can then have the same properties.
Matcha specific cultivars are chosen for the lower amount of catechins, whereas cultivars for black tea have higher amounts of catechins (the catechin levels in the resulting black tea are lower than green tea though because catechins oxidize/degrade to form the flavor of black tea).
How much this affects the amount of anti-oxidants in the tea though is something that requires more laboratory research…
A short introduction to a very complicated topic, but if you are drinking matcha solely for health reasons, please be aware of the above. Some of the health benefits claims out there include a boost in metabolism, calorie burning, lower cholesterol, energy boost, cancer fighting antioxidants, and relaxation promoting amino acids. How true is this? We’ll have to wait for more research…