Matcha tea has gone from niche product to mainstream with matcha shots, lattes, teas and matcha-flavored desserts popping in coffee shops and cafes. The grassy green powder that is whisked with hot water — unlike regular tea which is steeped in hot water — has been touted as having many health benefits.
But are those health benefits for real?
Like green tea, matcha comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, but matcha farmers cover their tea plants for nearly a month before harvesting to avoid direct sunlight. This increases chlorophyll production, gives the plant a darker green hue and boosts the production of nutritious amino acids.
Once the tea leaves are harvested, the woody stems and veins are removed and the leaves are ground up into a fine powder. By making the tea from the powder, a cup of matcha contains the nutrients from the entire tea leaf, which results in a greater amount of antioxidants than typically found in green tea.
“Matcha tea is significantly higher in antioxidants and catechins than regular teas as well as green tea,” said Anne-Marie Davee, registered dietician and a University of New England Nutrition program faculty member. “One cup of matcha tea will have the antioxidant content equivalent to three cups of green tea. Antioxidants can be a benefit to all systems in the body. They scavenge free radicals which can damage the skin, so this leads to healthier skin [and] gums, which ultimately improves oral health.”
The process of making matcha also leaves the powder with a greater amount of caffeine than other teas, which comes with its own nutritional caveats.
“It is actually similar to one cup of brewed coffee, 70 to 140 milligrams [of] caffeine per cup,” Davee said. “This should be consumed in moderation. Pregnant women should not consume beverages high in caffeine such as matcha tea.”
Nonetheless, Davee said that there is science-based evidence from limited research studies that matcha tea has a wide range of health benefits because of its antioxidant-rich properties, including protecting the liver by assisting with the detoxification processes; boosting brain function by increasing nerve conduction and alertness; potentially reducing the risks for certain cancers and tumor size; and increasing heart health by lowering bad cholesterol.
Davee said that drinking matcha tea can also assist with weight loss, but only when combined with regular physical activity.
“Matcha tea should complement a well-balanced diet — [it] does not take the place of it,” she added.
However, it’s important to note that much of the research isn’t from population-based studies, where researchers look at groups of people who drink the product and compare their health outcomes to groups that don’t drink it, rather than clinical trials. Also, some of the studies include “green tea extract” or even just “green tea” in addition to matcha itself, so it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the health benefits of matcha specifically.
“It is always difficult for population studies to isolate the health effects of one variable,” Davee said.
Also, as with anything, there are potential downsides to consuming too much matcha.
“When consumed in excess, too much caffeine can lead to headaches, diarrhea, insomnia and increased irritability,” Davee said. “The tolerable limit for people is highly individual, so more is not necessarily better.”
As a dietician, Davee recommended one to two cups of matcha tea daily (ideally a variety that is “organic and [from] a reputable brand,” she said) as a complement to a well-balanced diet.