Everyone's favorite health drink of the moment boasts some well-researched health benefits, but also some potential risks. Here's what to know
Matcha may seem like all the rage right now, but the truth is the green tea powder has been around for centuries. Preparing and serving the matcha is a key part of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and dates back more than 1,000 years. These days, you don't need to fly to Kyoto to experience matcha magic. You can easily spot foamy green lattes while scrolling through your Instagram feed and can get your hands on the stuff with a quick visit to your local Starbucks.
Matcha is a kind of green tea, but there's one big difference when it comes to preparation: Green tea is made by steeping tea leaves with water and discarding them before you take your first sip. With matcha, which translates to "powdered tea," you're drinking the actual leaves. Matcha is made when dried green tea leaves are ground into a super-fine powder. The powder is then whisked with warm water to create a light, fluffy matcha tea.
People have gone crazy over the superfood powder and trendy, intensely green drinks, but there are important health benefits—and actually, some risks—to note before getting too deep in the matcha madness.
Benefits of Matcha Powder
Green tea has been shown to offer a whole host of science-backed health benefits, including the ability to lower cholesterol, protect against cancer, control blood sugar levels, and reduce inflammation. Since matcha powder is essentially a concentrated version of green tea leaves, it takes those health advantages to the next level.
A study published in the Journal of Chromatography A found that matcha could have greater health benefits than regular green tea—making it sort of like green tea on steroids. The researchers found the concentration of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) was 137 times higher in matcha than in a standard green tea. More EGCG is a good thing since the antioxidant has been shown to have an "anti-cancer effect" and can slow down the growth of damaged cells. However, some doctors say there's no way matcha's EGCG count is really that high.
Matcha has also been shown to play a role in fat burning. A study published this year in the journal Food & Function found that mice that were fed a high-fat diet with a high percentage of matcha had much lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than mice that ate a high-fat diet without the matcha. The researchers also found matcha lowered blood glucose levels and boosted antioxidant activity.
People also turn to matcha tea as an alternative to coffee and report matcha delivers more of a chilled-out energy—or what some refer to as an "alert calm"—rather than the jitters you might feel from coffee. A 2008 study from the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that's likely due to an amino acid called L-theanine, which is commonly found in tea. Examines have shown that tea relaxes the brain while also boosting alertness. That's not to say matcha can't serve as your caffeine fix—most versions of matcha tea have almost as much caffeine as a cup of coffee (53 to 72 milligrams of caffeine per serving of pure matcha powder compared to 95 milligrams for coffee). Plus, it's also been said that the caffeine in matcha is released over time, so you can avoid the afternoon crash you might experience when coffee starts to wear off.
But Is Matcha Safe?
Tea leaves can have a high lead count, especially if they're grown in urban areas or near busy highways. With green tea, the leaves are thrown away before you drink it, so you're not at a high risk of ingesting lead. But some concern has been expressed that since matcha drinks include the entire leaf (although in powder form), that you could end up sipping large amounts of lead along with your latte. The good news is that doesn't actually seem to be the case. The research group ConsumerLab.com found matcha powders are not loaded with excessive amounts of pesticides or heavy metals.
Too much matcha powder could, however, put you at risk of herbal hepatotoxicity, which is when an overload of herbs or supplements (or herbal tea!) causes liver damage. There's no exact limit to how much you should drink since different powders have different concentrations and everyone's digestion system is slightly different. One study found no liver issues occurred even with people ingesting as much as 300 milligrams of EGCG every day for three months, and you'd have to eat A LOT of matcha to come close to that amount—a mug of matcha tea has about 50 to 100 milligrams of EGCG.
Another detail that could get in the way of your matcha obsession: its cost. ConsumerLab.com found the cheapest one-teaspoon serving of matcha goes for about $1, which is about 10 times the price of a brewed cup of tea. The higher price usually indicates a higher quality, so you should beware of cheaper teas that are probably mixed with matcha. They may be cheaper, but they contain significantly less caffeine and EGCG.
The Whole Truth About Matcha Green Tea
Should you hop on the matcha mania train? "It's not something I typically suggest because it is so strong-flavored and it's kind of expensive," says registered dietitian Dawn Orsaeo. But she says if you like the taste, which is earthy and grassy and really nothing like green tea, then go for it. Just don't overdo it, and talk to a physician if you have any concerns.