Matcha: A Timeless Tradition
Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world. Emperor Sh’eng Nung of China is believed to be first man to have sipped a cup of tea, in about the year 2737 BCE. Monks spread the practice of drinking tea throughout the Orient, revering its ability to help them stay alert during their long periods of prayer and meditation. Today, green tea is the most popular tea drunk in China, and has been used for its health benefits since the second millennium BCE.
Mysterious Origins & "The Way of Tea"
When and how green tea was introduced to Japan is shrouded in myth and legend, but it was being used as medicine by the 8th century CE and by Buddhist monks in meditation by the 9th century CE. However, it was not until the 16th century CE when Sen-no Rikyu consolidated “the way of tea” in Japanese culture. The way of tea, or chanoyu, incorporates poetry, ritual, and philosophy into Japanese tea culture and set the standards that are still observed today in Japanese tea ceremonies.
From Plant to Tea: Producing Matcha
Matcha is powdered green tea, produced by pulverizing the leaves from the camellia sinensis tea plant. The plant is kept in the shade for 20 days before harvesting, which reduces photosynthesis and thereby increases levels of theanine, the amino acid that contributes to unique taste and pharmacological effects of matcha. After harvest, the leaves are steamed and then air dried to produce tencha, the raw material that is then ground into matcha green tea powder.
Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science
Modern science has corroborated the medical properties that ancient physician’s ascribed to green tea. The polyphenols found in green tea have been found to be responsible for many of these health benefits, which include cancer prevention, reduced cardiovascular disease, liver disease, osteoporosis, and protection against bacterial and viral infection. The method of preparation used for matcha green tea has been shown to produce among the highest levels of polyphenols found in green tea (Komes et al., 2010) and high levels of theanine.
Theanine is an amide found in the camellia sinensis tea plant. Theanine is synthesized in the roots of the plant before it is stored in the leaves, where it accumulates and is eventually extracted in the tea production process. An essential component for both the taste and health benefits of green tea, theanine is a core determinant of quality and is in greater abundance in matcha green tea compared to many other green teas due to differences in cultivation methods. Theanine contributes to matcha green tea’s many health benefits. For a comprehensive review of theanine’s many particular health benefits, please see Cooper  or Liang and colleagues .
Preparation and Polyphenols
Polyphenols are a category of chemicals that are potent antioxidants . Phenolic compounds account for approximately 30% of the dry weight of green tea leaves . The most prominent of these are flavanols and catechins, which are more prevalent in green tea than in black tea . Matcha green tea has additionally been shown to have a high concentration of non-flavonoid polyphenols .
The concentration of polyphenols in green tea is affected by both water temperature and prolonged extraction time. The highest polyphenol concentrations in matcha green tea results from brewing the tea at 80 degrees Celsius and letting the tea steep for 5 minutes . The health benefiting antioxidant capacity of green tea is correlated with total phenol content.
Health Benefits of Matcha
A strong body of scientific research provides convincing evidence that green tea has a host of health benefits and medicinal properties [3,5,7]. These health properties derive primarily from the high levels of polyphenols and theanine in green tea, both of which are prominent in matcha green tea . Theanine levels are particularly high in matcha because the camellia sinensis tea plant is put in the shade for 20 days before the leaves are harvested, protecting theanine from being broken down by photosynthesis and thereby allowing it to accumulate in the leaves.
Oxidative Stress, Aging, & Disease
Consuming sufficient amounts of green tea has been found to prolong life by reducing the onset of disease . Oxidative stress plays a central role in the process of aging . Antioxidants reduce oxidative stress by inhibiting the oxidation of other molecules. Green tea polyphenols are potent antioxidants . Matcha green tea has among the highest levels of polyphenols when compared with other green tea preparation methods .
Many studies have shown that both theanine and polyphenols in green tea have anti-tumor effects that can help prevent cancer [2,4,10,11,12]. The anticancer effects of these compounds are achieved in a variety of ways, with each compound providing unique benefits. These range from general reduction of oxidative stress to selective interference and inhibition of tumor cell growth.
Consumption of green tea has been found to be independently related to predictors of coronary artery disease, with people who consume more green tea per day exhibiting less negative outcomes . Many studies collectively suggest that polyphenols, especially flavonol compounds and catechins, play an essential role in these beneficial effects[14,15]. A recent meta-analysis found that across 14 studies, consumption of green tea polyphenols significantly lowers total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels .
Protection of Central Nervous System
Theanine and polyphenols in green tea have been found to have neuroprotective effects, which derive from their ability to reduce oxidative stress and neurotoxin-induced neurotoxicity [2,17]. Theanine has also been reported to provide neuroprotective effects through its regulatory action on glutamate receptors [18,19], a prevalent neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. These beneficial effects have been suggested to protect against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease-related neurotoxin damage .
There have been many studies conducted on the benefits of green tea for the skin. When applied topically (onto the skin itself), green tea polyphenols have been shown to provide protection against damages caused by UVA and UVB exposure in the sun, which inhibits cancer development and slows aging of the skin . After enjoying a cup of matcha green tea, pour the remnants from the cup onto your hands and apply the green tea to your face and limbs to maximize the health benefits!
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