As a doctor and student of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I have been a green tea afficionado for over 25 years. I enjoy the astringent, grassy flavor and its balancing effect on energy and focus.
Green tea, and its whole-leaf cousin, matcha have been consumed by Asian cultures for centuries. To date, millions of people in the East and West enjoy green tea as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Due to the superior health and longevity of the Japanese culture (in which green tea is a staple of the traditional diet), green tea has been the subject of many scientific studies over the past ten years.
The antioxidant polyphenols in green tea, known as catechins, have been studied for numerous health benefits, from preventing cancer to improving cognitive function.
Matcha, the whole powdered form of green tea, has become a recent phenomenon in Western culture. And has been touted the “ultimate” green tea.
But, is one really better than the other?
In today’s post we’ll sift through the hype and examine the science and proven benefits behind each type of tea.
In the end, I hope to settle the modern-American-tea-lover’s dilemma of: green tea or matcha?
Health benefits of drinking green tea
In addition to traditional uses, there are dozens of studies proving green tea’s value as one of planet Earth’s healthiest and most antioxidant-rich beverages.
The polyphenols contained in green tea, such as epigallo-catechin gallate (commonly known as ECGC), have been proven effective for:
- Anti-cancer benefits as chemoprotective agents1
- Reducing the risk of hypertension by up to 46%2
- Reducing body fat by 19.6% in habitual tea drinkers3
- Maintaining overall cardiovascular and metabolic health4
- Metabolic syndrome5
- Reducing the risk of cognitive impairment6
- Reducing the risk of several types of cancers7,—including breast, ovarian, prostate8, bladder9, pancreatic10, and colon cancers11.
- Genital warts12—a green-tea-containing ointment, has been FDA-approved for their treatment.
Though many claims are made about green tea’s effectiveness for weight-loss, the scientific community still considers weight-loss evidence to be inconclusive.
Based on traditional use and scientific studies, green tea is undoubtedly a healthful, medicinal, longevity-enhancing beverage. But how does it stack up against matcha?
Health benefits of drinking matcha
When you drink matcha, you consume green tea in its most whole, concentrated form. In fact, matcha is the only type of tea in which the whole leaf is consumed.
The subject of the sacred Japanese tea ceremony, and favored beverage of enlightened monks and ancient samurai warriors, matcha packs a powerful punch of health benefits.
But is matcha really so superior to green tea?
In relation to antioxidant benefits, research suggests YES it is.
A comparison study conducted by researchers from the University of Colorado Springs, published in the Journal of Chromatography, reported the concentration of EGCG from matcha is 137 times greater than that of China Green Tips green tea, and at least three times higher than other types of green tea14.
- This is due to its naturally-occurring amino acid, L-theanine. Thus, matcha has been used by Japanese monks for centuries to enhance lengthy meditation practices.
- This is believed to be due to the combination of vitamins, trace minerals, and caffeine, balanced by the L-theanine.
- Matcha leaves are grown in the shade which concentrates their chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is naturally rich in magnesium, vitamin K, and antioxidants.
- If you wish to reap the health benefits of green tea, but aren’t big on its flavor, you can blend matcha into smoothies, or add it to dressings and sauces.
Controversy over green tea safety: the facts about liver failure and lead
Despite green tea’s numerous benefits and centuries-proven safety record, there has been recent controversy over incidents of liver injury and lead content.
Let’s look at the liver injury issue first.
Some cases of liver injury have occurred in people taking high-dose green tea supplements—often found in weight-loss products.
According to The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health16, incidents of liver injury are rare and drinking green tea is considered safe for most people.
To safely enjoy the health benefits of green tea, they recommend keeping consumption to under five cups a day. And if you have a liver ailment, it is advisable to stick with tea and steer clear of concentrated supplements (check with a licensed practitioner).
Green tea and matcha can also interact with some medications. Visit the above link on safety for a full list of possible interactions and safety precautions.
Now, onto concerns about lead.
Due to heavy pollution from coal plants in China, (where the majority of the world’s green tea is grown) many varieties have begun testing positive for lead.
This varies widely from tea to tea depending on where and how it is grown.
According to a report from Consumer Lab, green tea grown in Japan tests for extremely low to no levels of lead compared with tea grown in China17.
The good news is, even if you drink green tea grown in China, most if not all the lead remains in the leaves and is filtered out by a tea bag.
The actual tea liquid contains very little if any lead. So unless you are eating the leaves and/or drinking copious amounts a day (say more than 5 cups) there isn’t much to worry about.
What about matcha?
The majority of the world’s matcha is grown in Japan where lead pollution is not a big issue. So you can drink whole leaf matcha without concerns.
Like everything, enjoy your tea in moderate amounts.
Tea or supplement?
Since green tea and matcha have benefited people for centuries as infusions, I generally encourage my patients to follow suit and drink the tea.
However, for some a high quality, organic supplement can make getting enough of the tea’s antioxidants and other nutrients easier.
To be clear, green tea supplements are considered safe, unless you have a liver issue or are taking an extremely high or concentrated dose.
I suggest speaking with your practitioner to find out the best source or amounts for your health goals.
My favorite brands
For green tea, look for fresh, organic, pure green tea without any additives or “natural flavors”.
For authentic Japanese matcha, I enjoy DoMatch Organic Second Harvest.
So…green tea or matcha?
Though matcha contains more ECGC than green tea, both types of tea have been proven beneficial in maintaining overall health and preventing disease.
As the ancient Chinese proverb suggests: “Drinking a daily cup of tea will surely starve the apothecary.”
My advice: if you like green tea drink organic green tea, if you like matcha drink authentic Japanese-grown matcha, if you enjoy a little of both…even better.
These are significant findings in favor of matcha lovers, and not surprising, considering whole foods are always the most nutritious foods…even when it comes to tea.
Health benefits of drinking matcha include:
- Trace minerals, iron, and vitamins A, C, E, K, and B Vitamins.
- Whole leaf matcha provides a healthy dose of fiber.
- According to a Japanese study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, matcha can protect against hepatic and renal damage in type 2 diabetics13http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19735169