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Is Lower-quality Matcha Higher in Catechins?

Nicholas Noble | April 30, 2020

Humans, plants – all living things are at constant odds against the elements, but it can be surprising how quickly life can adapt to changes to maintain balance. Homeostasis aside, when just right, reactions occur which can make ‘life’ stronger, more resilient to stressors.

This is sometimes called hormesis. For human health at least, it plays a role in things like strength training or say, the therapeutic benefits behind sauna. But what about plants – if they have the same principle machinery, are they also being conditioned to be stronger, more nutritious?

How Environmental Conditions Influence Quality of Matcha Tea

Our leafy friends may not grow muscles per se, but in the presence of environmental stressors they certainly change pace – adaptations which produce a more complete, or in some cases, a more specialized composition of good-for-you nutrients. 

  • Take sunlight, often wineries will expose grapes to evoke more astringency and certain aromatics – they adapt by creating key compounds which ‘guard’ against damage from exposure.

These defensive molecules commonly have antioxidant properties as well as other potential benefits. We ultimately eat them and our health may benefit – this is known as xenohormesis.

What is the Best Matcha for Health Benefits?

So, how do the harvesting techniques used to produce matcha influence tea-leaf composition? What do those adaptations do for our bodies? With matcha, we have the luxury to choose what adaptive benefits we most want. 

Many are able to find a grade of matcha which contours their individual goals, or even one with a balanced, broad composition. We can take control of what xenohormesis means for us:

  • Maybe you want more antioxidants, and maybe a friend more calming amino acids. All while a family member may simply want the broadest spectrum (see entourage effect) of phytonutrients that matcha can offer.

Sun vs. Shade: What do you want your matcha to be ‘made’ of?

There is literally a matcha for each, and it’s not always about health benefits. Taste is also negotiable, and in either case palate preference closely correlates with specific qualities for health [1]. 

Finer subtleties aside, science supports that one of the most significant variables in the range of matcha green teas (and their chemical compositions) is one between sun and shade. 

What Matcha has the Most Antioxidants?

It’s reported that leaves exposed to more intense sunlight (or for longer, e.g. mature tea leaves) contain increased levels of catechins [1]. These are a potent class of antioxidant polyphenols, which in higher levels confer a bitter taste – an astringency even an amateur tea lover can notice. 

If that’s where some of the antioxidants are, why is high quality matcha desired to be more savory than bitter? Well, camellia sinensis (tea plant) has been bred to be more adaptable to conditions of traditional shading, allowing each leaf to focus on building savory (even brain-active) amino acids like L-theanine.

Does Ceremonial Matcha have Less Antioxidants?

In place of higher catechin levels, characteristic umami is a key indicator in the highest quality matchas, but how many polyphenols are lost in the trade? In this case, matcha is not a ‘zero sum’ plant.

It’s impressive how in low-light, high quality tea leaves rapidly increase amino-acid and chlorophyll production, without totally undercutting polyphenol production. Unlike low to medium grade matchas (e.g. 2nd or 3rd harvest), higher quality leaves are richer in calming amino acids, on their own possessing antioxidant function [1]. 

While younger leaves are naturally sweeter and savory, they still are surprisingly concentrated in polyphenolic content (free-radical absorbers). The highest qualities of matcha boast rich amino-acids, and polyphenol content fluxes by only 2% compared to lower cost matcha [1].  

Simple Choices for Matcha?

Although choice in matcha is not so dichotomous as ‘antioxidants’ or ‘amino acids,’ these groups broadly represent the benefits of common interest. Someone curious for a balance therein may look for green tea powder produced from more mature, sun-exposed, antioxidant rich tea leaves [1].

Even in this case there is still significant amino acid content, but may offer a lower cost option without undermining essential benefits (remember that word xenohormesis).

The Bottom Line

And for the matcha connoisseur (or zen mind practitioner)? Seeking the ultimate state of calm by choosing a high grade of matcha will ensure robust amino-acid composition, but importantly, not at cost to those polyphenol antioxidants [1]. 

Future research will also help to better understand the antioxidant potential of special amino acids like L-theanine. For the meantime, with matcha it seems there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – perhaps only ‘amazing’ and ‘exceptional’ for the benefits you seek. 

So, as you practice with daily matcha, remember you have nothing to lose, only more to gain. And if you’re picky about what benefits speak to you most, with matcha there is flexibility to opt for more antioxidants, more calming amino acids, or simply a balance between.

 

-Team Matcha Kari

 

SHOP MATCHA

 

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References

[1] Jakubczyk, K., Kochman, J., Kwiatkowska, A., Kałduńska, J., Dec, K., Kawczuga, D., & Janda, K. (2020). Antioxidant Properties and Nutritional Composition of Matcha Green Tea. Foods, 9(4), 483.

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