If you're a fan of green tea you might want to take it to the next level and try matcha, a full-bodied brew from Japan that has become very popular in the West. Besides consuming it as a hot or cold beverage, you can find it as an ingredient in an increasing number of products, including lattes (as from Starbucks), ice creams (as from Häagen-Dazs), energy bars, and even beer. Marketers say matcha helps prevent cancer, boosts memory, reduces fat absorption, improves sports performance, enhances skin health, fights stress, and increases longevity, among other effects. "Its uses are unlimited," one product's label states. Though there's no evidence to support these overblown claims, matcha, like other teas, contains phytochemicals that may have various health benefits.
Matcha, the centerpiece of the tea ceremony, has been part of Japanese culture for centuries. It comes from the same plant (Camellia sinensis) as black, oolong, white, and other green teas, but is processed and prepared differently. For several weeks before harvesting, farmers cover the plants to block sunlight, which boosts chlorophyll levels, reduces the tea’s astringency, and imparts a unique flavor. The leaves are quickly steamed to prevent oxidation and laid out flat to dry (not rolled as with other teas); then they are de-stemmed, de-veined, and finely ground. The resulting powder has a deep green hue (due to its high chlorophyll content) and a grassy ("vegetal"), slightly sweet flavor. The tea is traditionally prepared by whisking the powder in hot water in a special bowl, its thickness depending on how much matcha is used.
While there are lots of studies on green tea—showing potential for lowering cholesterol, controlling blood sugar, improving brain health, and more—there is little published research on matcha specifically. But because you consume the whole tea leaf (as opposed to just the water in which the leaves are brewed, as with regular tea), you get more phytochemicals, which might translate into more benefits. A lab study in the Journal of Chromatography A in 2003 noted that a cup of matcha had at least three times more of the antioxidant EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) than regular brewed green tea. More recent research reported that matcha had among the highest levels of EGCG and related compounds of various green teas tested.
Matcha contains some caffeine (about 25 to 75 milligrams per serving, depending on the serving size) and is especially rich in L-theanine (an amino acid unique to tea that may have some calming effects on the nervous system), which could explain why this tea, in particular, is said to promote "alert relaxation." It's also a source of potassium, vitamin K, and other nutrients, plus a little fiber.
How to use it
In addition to drinking matcha tea, you can use small amounts of the powder to add color and flavor to recipes—from smoothies and stews to cakes and icings. The Internet is awash with ideas. Just ignore all the hype about miracle-like effects. Depending on the quality, which varies a lot, matcha powder costs anywhere from about $2 to more than $30 an ounce (with an ounce making about 14 servings of tea). You can buy the tea at Japanese tea shops or specialty stores or online, along with supplies needed to prepare it in the traditional way. These include the bamboo matcha spoon (Chashaku), bamboo whisk, and glazed-ceramic bowl (Chawan).