Things are opening back up, but should you be going out for your daily matcha fix?
‘Big Coffee’ chains (including one doubling as a pastry pitstop) are adding more to their matcha green tea selections by the day.
Yet, with the exception of the occasional specialty cafe or natural food store, it’s rare to find real matcha while out and about.
Ordering direct to your doorstep from a reputable source is perhaps one of the few reliable means – below we give some reasons why.
Especially now, as things are opening back up and people are venturing out, below we compare the biggest differences, including the most common (and worrisome) risks of sourcing your matcha outside the house.
- To clarify, that means matcha that has been prepared for you by those ‘big box’ coffee chains – matcha that you haven’t carefully sourced from a knowledgeable local cafe, or which you haven’t prepared yourself.
Where to Get Real Matcha
Virtually ALL matcha served from those national cafes pose unsuspecting risks. Keep reading for the details you need, including how we can turn to our taste buds, and a couple key pointers when in doubt.
How Much Sugar is Safe for Matcha?
When finding the right source for your matcha fix, remember that the American Heart Association guides adult intake of added sugar to be less than 150 calories, or about 9-tsp daily. That’s the upper limit recommendation.
In practice, American adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day, more than 3x the daily limits by most medical advice. Unfortunately, this figure is becoming harder to combat.
- Reasons include increasingly deceitful ingredient lists and packaging (see a full list of sugar additives).
- And simply that added-sugar is in a majority of everyday foods.
So as matcha grows more popular, it’s not helping the matter that these national chains are offering hyper-sweetened green tea drinks to unwitting customers.
As a whole, ‘big-box coffee’ (examples below) is making an aggressive push to profit on the lack of public familiarity with matcha, a product still in its infancy outside of Japan.
These marketing campaigns are not so sweet after all. They’re serving a matcha-experience far from tradition, accompanied by health risks which undermine a long tradition of wellness-promoting properties of matcha.
Should Matcha be Sweetened?
Zen monks originally developed matcha as a traditional beverage, plain (with water only) and the highest quality matcha green tea powder. No sweeteners, no added calories. Now? It’s the latest drink warranting sugar caution.
They plead health properties and nootropic energy, all the while guising low-quality matcha under huge doses of added sweetener. Right now, coffee chains are a total blow to traditional matcha:
- On one hand, the quality of matcha being used is a low-grade, and though all matcha green tea is reported to have health benefits, higher qualities (e.g. Ceremonial Grade) possess them in the greatest levels.
- And on the other hand, it’s a relevant question whether those properties outweigh the health-risks of consuming that much refined sugar.
Below, we review why that sweetened-detail cannot be escaped by simply asking “no sugar added, please” at these national cafe pitstops.
Why it’s Hard to Find Sugar-free Matcha
First, there is a clear level of exploitation happening, reliant on the longstanding (widely-established) fact that green tea is good for you; that it’s a “healthy alternative to sweet drinks, energy shots, and sugary coffees.”
Absolutely true, matcha IS a healthy alternative, but these cafes are serving pre-sweetened matcha which is disingenuous to authentic matcha tea.
Don’t be misled by a “modern, yet authentic take on matcha,” chain-coffee matcha-lattes are now a dangerous avenue of sugar consumption, but the risks don’t stop there either.
A couple other big problems come to mind as well...
Is Matcha Grown Sustainably?
These corporate chains are driving unprecedented volume and distribution channels for matcha, leading to ongoing infrastructural challenges to authentic Japanese production.
- This demand is solely interested in low-quality, ‘imitation’ matcha, and is the leading reason that there are only 60 authentic matcha tea-farms left in Japan.
Industrialized green tea powder is being grown quickly, sweetened into a latte to hide the characteristic (unpalatable) bitterness of low-quality matcha, and audaciously retailed at a premium price point.
What Matcha does Big Coffee Use?
Popular coffee shops are using matcha which comes to them at 3-8% the cost of true (authentic) matcha green tea, definitely not the ‘Daily Ritual’ quality which is actively portrayed.
They’re able to do this because there’s a huge lack of familiarity with matcha and what true quality is supposed to look, taste, and feel like.
- Average cafe-goers are being served an experience contradictory to authentic matcha.
- Worse, ‘big box coffee’ knows very well that they are taking advantage.
It’s a certain case of opportunism, and it’s worth reiterating how ‘big box coffee’ is creating economic pressure against Japan’s traditional matcha tea farms.
- Traditional cultivation has been discouraged and largely replaced with mono-crop production.
- Corporate industrialization also includes the use of petrochemical pesticides and gas tractors.
That same low quality matcha being served on your downtown corner is also subject to pollutant contamination and heavy metals from machine harvesting, blending.
Is Cafe Matcha Fair-Trade?
Such pressure has been catastrophic. To keep up with demand, countless tea-farms have been backed into a corner, forced to give up on authenticity and practices otherwise preserved exclusively through family tradition.
Once with countless centuries-old tea-farms, Japan now has less than 60 families still producing authentic matcha green tea. This is a story for another time, but gives essential context to national-coffee’s unfair practices.
How Much Sugar is in Matcha?
One potent antioxidant in matcha tea is EGCG, which may help support healthy blood glucose response. However, it’s unknown if that is able to counteract the more than 100g of added sugar found in many retail green tea lattes.
Yes, you read that right. That’s more than 8 tablespoons of refined sugar, according to the nutrition facts of one of those pastry pit stops, and that’s only for the medium size.
Where to Buy Sugar-free Matcha
One question many people have is whether you can order an unsweetened (no sugar added) matcha or matcha latte. Even if you skip the 3 pumps of liquid sweetener (the average recipe for a size medium), the matcha being used has already been pre-sweetened.
The fact is that this poor quality matcha is unpalatable without added sweetener. It’s discovered that many of these large-sized lattes contain upwards of 8tbsp (100g) of added sugar.
- Even if you ask for yours prepared without sweetener, it’s unclear how much added-sugar is already present in the matcha powder.
- For people who need to avoid refined sugar in their diet, this is deceptive and a risk to health.
Phrasing like “a subtle hint of sweetness” is actively tricking newcomers into thinking this is a natural, or authentic characteristic of matcha.
There’s no readily disclosed sugar-content. We won’t name names, but here’s a couple definitions for products (or locations) where this applies:
BIG BOX COFFEE #1
“A fast paced cafe where coffee is served, also serving breakfast and lunch foods, wraps, and other offerings. Optionally through a drive-up window.” Particularly any such with international presence and a tendency towards multiple locations within a square mile radius on university campuses.
BIG BOX COFFEE #2
“A small, cake-like sweetened dough, typically in the shape of a ball or ring.” If you visit somewhere with these sweet treats alongside coffee (especially by the ‘action tense’ of a basketball verb) then steer clear of the matcha there!
How to Tell Good vs. Bad Matcha
You would think that the coffee giants would have the means to research and source the very best quality available. But unfortunately their only concern is price-point and profitability.
Many of those research dollars instead have been spent to develop recipes that are increasingly difficult to say “no” to (sugar is addictive). So how can you tell if your source of retail matcha falls into this category?
Besides the definitions above, we can rely on a couple key details to identify good quality matcha. Including techniques to identify natural sweetness vs. added sugar.
Identifying Good Quality Matcha
By ordering matcha at a local cafe or coffee-chain, you’re given limited information about the source, quality, or type being used. The burden of questioning falls on you.
Usually the barista taking your order has as little (or no more) information as you, but it doesn’t hurt to ask:
- The country of origin (it should be Japan).
- Any added ingredients.
- How it’s been stored and if it’s stone-ground.
- What flush of tea-leaves were used.
Be wary of any matcha visibly stored in glass containers or mason jars, where light may damage the tea over time. You may also ask for a sample when possible, in which case you can get a first-hand sense of color, taste, and aroma.
- Also, if they cannot confirm that the powder is 100% stone-ground green tea powder (no other ingredients), then most commonly it’s an added-sugar blend
- These often have milk powder, and nearly always are from third-flush (low-quality/bitter) matcha tea.
What Does Good Matcha Look Like?
It should appear as a vibrant, grassy, emerald color, with no underlying yellows or browns. Aroma should match with hints of sweet, earthy, and floral notes.
And for taste? There should be minimal bitterness, only minor levels of astringency, and noticeable umami on the palate (think soup, aged cheese, truffles).
Also, while matcha has a natural sweetness when grown authentically, by NO means should your taste-buds’ primary experience be one of sugar.
Is Matcha Naturally Sweet?
If sweet is a competing flavor in each sip, and if you’ve asked for your matcha to be prepared without added sweetener, then this is a red flag that the green tea powder is a pre-sweetened blend.
- Authentic matcha is always 100% green tea with no other ingredients.
- There is also evidence suggesting these blends may counteract the natural health benefits of matcha.
- Powdered milk additives may inhibit antioxidant properties of matcha.
Is Drive-thru Matcha Real?
Overstepping their coffee creeds, two of America’s biggest coffee chains are serving low quality matcha, unavoidably with added sugar, and many aren’t even aware of it.
Also unlike top-quality matcha, which has high levels of polyphenols and brain boosting amino-acids, the blends being used at a national chain near you comes with matcha largely absent of those exciting benefits.
WHAT MATCHA DO COFFEE SHOPS USE?
Blends which contain milk, sugar, emulsifiers, and/or preservatives may ruin the authentic preparation of matcha, and leave the long list of health benefits in a state of limbo.
Renowned ‘good-for-you’ compounds are diluted between 2-4 pumps of liquid sugar, ultimately far from the Zen-delight you’ve been led to assume.
Where does Chain Coffee Matcha come from?
Some big coffee chains do in fact source their matcha from Japan. However, a number of reports tell us these chains are sourcing more frequently from imitation matcha producers, particularly China.
This matcha goes into a pre-blended powder which, according to one insider report, states only 15% matcha, with the remaining volume sitting around a 17:1 ratio of cane sugar to fruit pectin.
Sourcing is still dubious, but with “America’s favorite pastry pitstop” having now joined the matcha map, there’s reason for greater doubt than ever: where is all of this matcha possibly coming from?
- Some worry that this is powder created from inferior sencha leaves (normally for green tea bags), rather than tencha, the quality of leaf used to create matcha.
- While others fear that it’s tea powder imported to Japan from China to keep up with demands.
Overall, it’s clear the reasons are more than one to be cautious. But the latter especially carries risks of heavy metals, pesticides.
Aside from environmental contamination, imitation matcha also skips-out on the importance of traditional cultivation.
- That includes specific growing, shading, harvesting, and processing conditions.
- Matcha which is never machine-harvested, and must always be picked by hand.
- It’s also matcha which is always ground with slow-churning stone mills rather than an industrial blender which may cause metal contamination.
The Bottom Line
If you have a local specialty (e.g. Mom and Pop) cafe which is doing matcha right, give them a pat on the back for us – they deserve all of our support.
Right now though that’s an exception to what should be a rule. Those national coffee locales remain the average matcha newcomer’s ‘first-introduction’ to matcha.
Most walk away with either a sugar rush or a bitter aftertaste, bad news all around, and an experience which strays far from the mindful intent behind traditional preparation.
The biggest risks are contaminated tea powder, matcha sourced from China, high levels of added sugar, and low-quality matcha lacking many of the rightful health benefits.
We say leave matcha to those who are willing to see it done the right way. Choose a source of matcha which emphasizes education, purity, and authentic cultivation.
It’s also smart to stand behind a source which honors the growing scarcity of authentic tradition, and is willing to be a support, against the odds, to keep those few remaining tea-farms from being lost.
-Team Matcha Kari