If you struggle to get going in the morning without a cup or two of coffee, you're certainly not alone. But off and on over the last few decades, nutritional science has debated whether coffee is a healthy thing to consume, or if there's a better way to get that kick of energy you need in the morning.
Enter matcha, a type of green tea powder that's growing in popularity because of its health properties and gentle caffeine kick.
Charlie Baden, senior blendmaster at Celestial Seasonings, part of the Hain Celestial Group, Inc., in Denver, which makes a wide variety of teas, says that recently, matcha has garnered more attention from fitness-minded folks as a possibly healthier alternative to that morning cup of joe. In just the past year, Celestial Seasonings' sales of matcha have increased 30%.
What Is Matcha?
Matcha is a green powder made from pulverized leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant, which is the same bush that produces the leaves used for both green tea and black tea. So, it's tea, just in a more concentrated form, Baden explains.
Matcha tea is a primarily grown in Japan. "That's where the highest quality is, and that's the preferred source," Baden says. These plants "are grown in the shade. That helps to produce higher levels of chlorophyll, and in some cases higher antioxidant levels."
The top leaves on the bush are plucked and steamed to prevent oxidation. "If you don't create some sort of heat source, the leaves will start fermentation and turn into black tea," Baden explains. "So, the Japanese steam process is the preferred and most gentle way" to prepare matcha. This also preserves the true character of the plant and the matcha's intended flavor.
After the leaves are dried, they're milled or ground into very fine particles. Baden says pulverizing the leaves after they've dried is critical to matcha's health benefits because it releases high levels of antioxidants, such as catechin and polyphenols. "The process of milling completely breaks the cell walls of the leaf. All the good stuff is in there."
With green tea, the leaves are steeped and then removed from the water before the tea is consumed. With matcha, however, the whole leaf is consumed.
"Matcha is typically recognized as a form of green tea, where the powder is whisked with hot water," says Hollie Zammit, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health Cancer Institute in Orlando. "This is in comparison to conventional methods, where tea leaves are steeped in hot water and are eventually discarded once it reaches preferred level of concentration." It's like a concentrated form of green tea because you're consuming the whole leaf.
So, what's it taste like? Some brands of matcha taste a lot like the green tea they're related to, but stronger.
"Think of a strong and earthy taste with a full and frothy texture," says Reema Kanda, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California. "Matcha is considered one of the most aromatic green teas. It's the only drink where the green leaves from tea bushes are consumed as part of the drink rather than being infused in hot water."
Health Benefits of Coffee
Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world and has been widely researched. It's a brewed drink prepared from roasted coffee beans, which are the seeds of berries from certain species of the Coffea plant.
This dark elixir contains a number of compounds that may be beneficial to health. Various studies have suggested that coffee may offer several health benefits, including:
-- Improved focus and cognitive function.
-- Reduced inflammation.
-- Reduced risk of certain types of cancer.
-- Reduced risk of diabetes.
-- Improved strength and athletic performance.
Coffee is a plant-based drink, and as such, it contains antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that can be beneficial for health, Berkman says. "Polyphenols found in coffee have been linked to having anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-diabetes and anti-hypertensive properties."
"In moderate doses, coffee may help lower your risk of liver and endometrial cancers, according to research from the American Institute of Cancer," Zammit says. "This may be true for both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, all thanks to the phytochemicals coffee contains, which may help lower inflammation in the body."
Coffee is perhaps most famous for its caffeine content. This is the reason that so many people reach for a steaming cup first thing every morning. Caffeine is a stimulant that occurs naturally in the plant.
"Caffeine has been studied more than any other ingredient in coffee," Kanda says, adding that the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee can vary widely depending on the type of coffee beans used, how they've been roasted and other factors. "Some studies have shown caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee have the same effects, which suggests something else in coffee is involved," rather than just the caffeine, Kanda says.
In addition to the boost in mental acuity that caffeine can offer, coffee has also been found to be a performance enhancer when it comes to boosting the strength of muscle contraction. It may also be associated with faster weight loss.
Health Benefits of Matcha
Matcha has been associated with several health benefits including:
-- Increased and sustained energy.
-- Improved sleep.
-- Improved relaxation.
-- Improved cognitive function.
-- Reduced blood pressure.
-- Increased production of serotonin levels.
-- Reduced inflammation.
-- Reduced risk of cancer.
Matcha contains L-theanine, "an amino acid that gives it its unique flavor," Zammit explains. L-theanine is also responsible for matcha's ability to give you a buzz. "This amino acid in matcha creates a calmer and more sustained energy, whereas coffee can give you an instant bolt or sometimes a bit of a jittery edge and may not last as long."
L-theanine "has been studied for its effects on mental focus, sleep, relaxation and cognitive ability," and it's believed it can also "boost the immune system and reduce blood pressure," says Susan Berkman, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
L-theanine can help stimulate production of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter that can reduce stress and boost your mood. When you boost serotonin levels, that can help to lower blood pressure and reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that may cause inflammation and an increase in appetite, Zammit says.
In addition, Kanda notes that matcha "contains the phytochemical EGCG in abundance." This compound "increases fat metabolism due to its strong thermogenic properties, which means it helps you burn calories," she says.
Matcha also contains very concentrated levels of antioxidants that are higher than in other teas. "This is largely due to the catechins which help to prevent and repair damage to your cells. It's well known that antioxidants play a vital role in reducing risk of disease, specifically with cancer."
Both matcha and coffee contain caffeine, and as such, you need to be cautious not to over-consume. Berkman recommends "sticking to three or fewer cups per day. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping caffeine intake less than 400 milligrams per day."
If you consume too much caffeine, that can cause:
-- Increased anxiety.
-- Increase heart rate.
-- Increased breathing rate.
"One of the biggest differences between matcha and coffee is their caffeine content," Berkman says.
-- Matcha: a ½ teaspoon of powdered matcha has about 20 to 39 milligrams of caffeine.
-- Coffee: an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee has around 95 milligrams.
Matcha can sometimes contain lead, which is absorbed from the environment by the plant. "About 90% of the lead stays in the tea leaves," which is fine when you're using traditional green tea as you discard the leaves after steeping. But with matcha, you're consuming ground up leaves, so you're ingesting more lead.
ConsumerLab.com, an independent group that tests teas, estimates that a cup of matcha can contain as much as 30 times more lead than a cup of green tea. Because of this, Zammit recommends limiting yourself to "no more than one to two cups daily and avoid giving it to children."
When choosing a matcha product, look for one that has undergone testing for heavy metals.
And, "if you're sensitive to caffeine or are pregnant, use caution and discuss with your doctor."
Which Is Better?
That really depends on which you prefer the taste of, how you take your beverage and what your goals are.
"There's no right or wrong on which to choose, and you don't need to stick to one over the other," Zammit says. Both coffee and matcha can be part of a healthy diet.
Some considerations for choosing include:
-- What else you add to the cup. "Keep in mind what you add to your coffee or tea, as that can be counterproductive to your overall caloric intake," Zammit says. Berkman agrees, noting that "if your coffee contains several spoonfuls of cream and sugar, matcha mixed with water might provide a lower calorie alternative."
-- Flavor preferences. "If you would like a hot beverage with caffeine and don't care for the bitterness of coffee or the jitters it may give you, consider matcha as a substitute," Zammit says.
-- Caffeine content. "Matcha contains about three times as much caffeine versus a regular cup of tea, but may have less than a cup of coffee," Zammit says. "For those who love tea, but would prefer more caffeine than a standard cup, this may be a better option."
-- Health benefits. And if you're drinking one or the other solely for the health benefits, matcha might give you a bigger bang for your buck. Berkman says that because "matcha contains the whole tea leaf and not just extract like most teas, it contains higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. One cup of matcha contains 10 times the amount of antioxidants as a cup of green tea."
-- Potential performance gains. Kanda notes that "if your goal is to strictly improve strength and power performance in the gym or outdoors, coffee may be a better option, whereas matcha may be a better alternative if you're looking to perform more endurance-based exercise." Coffee is known to help pep you up, while a cup of tea, even though it has caffeine, is often associated with relaxing and unwinding.