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Thinking Organic about Matcha?

Nicholas Noble | August 22, 2019

Many of us have entrusted the USDA Organic symbol as steward to our health and wellness, and mostly for good reason. The agricultural practices involved in organic certification protect us from potential exposures to harmful pesticides, environmental toxins, and are even suspected to result in more nutritious produce. Organic standards also mean more overhead for quality assurance, but the results are thought to be worth the increase in price point. True for matcha? Let’s find out.

Background

Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) helps the public better differentiate this cost/benefit by analyzing non-organic produce for residual pesticides and common toxins. Unbeknownst to many, this report details some non-organic produce to be virtually free of these impurities, plenty safe and nutritious — just as their organic counterparts. 

The EWG’s annual report is not comprehensive to nutritional content or unconventional crops such as the tea plant, but it does beg an important question of our grocery discretions, is it always worth paying for the added protections? There’s no easy answer.

Many will still err with complete caution by looking only for that trusty seal, but the fact remains that USDA Organic certification regulates much more than pesticides. These regulations broadly define many prohibited practices and additives, not limited to the use of antibiotics in livestock, or the application of most crop-fertilizers. [1]

Standards and Safety

Of the latter, blanket standardization liably prohibits some, otherwise safe and  traditional amendments. With most authentic Japanese matcha, these include high-quality natural fish meal and even pure nitrogen, soil fertilizers which healthily date back long before any modern pesticides or synthetic contaminants. 

As only one example of many, we see how it’s possible that nutritious and uncontaminated produce may fall short of that trusty green pedestal. 

This is especially true for Japanese producers (not just the tea fields), where a single choice in safe and effective soil fertilizer has the potential to discredit USDA Organic eligibility. All the while, Japan’s bare-minimum cultivation guidelines rigorously out-perform many of even the most stringent required for U.S. organic approval. [2]

A critical intersection

Bringing us to matcha… a commodity, a tonic, a form of routine nutrition, this daily beverage puts our organic discretions more into question than most other products. True matcha comes only from Japan, the country with the strictest and most regularly enforced agriculture laws than anywhere else in the world. 

The result is a purity which is virtually indistinguishable between organic and non-organic matcha tea. The recent surge in demand for ‘organic’ means there are still very few organic tea farms, where non-traditional fertilizers inextricably lessen annual tea yields. These two factors contribute to a greater price point typically associated with more premium grades of matcha. Arguably, the added cost is disproportionate to potential health protections.

What’s more, is that a millennium of traditional matcha has acquainted with only the brightest, emerald green, savory, and minimally bitter matcha for use in Japanese Tea Ceremony. Achieving these pleasant characteristics absolutely relies on traditional fertilizer, results that organic variations cannot yet achieve.

Specifically before being hand-picking and being stone-ground into matcha, tea leaves customarily rely on traditional fertilizers in maintaining growth under pre-harvest shade cloths. The diminished sunlight during these 3 weeks encourages the growth of wider, thinner tea leaves which also feature a heightened amino acid and chlorophyll composition. Important, this shading also reduces bitter catechins, tannins, and other polyphenols. 

With both organic and non-organic matcha each subject to intense shading, the abundant nutrition of traditional fertilizer provides non-organic matcha the power needed to achieve optimal tea characteristics. As opposed to conventional practices, organic matcha instead struggles to develop comparable nutrition, antioxidant content, and much sought-after flavor.

This isn’t to say traditional practices are unwilling to adapt to the times. Strides in agricultural technology and advanced fertilization means organic matcha is becoming more widely accessible, and with a quality approaching that of conventional, i.e. ceremonial matcha. 

The bottom line

The 1,000 year lineage of harvesting strategies reserved exclusively for the best matcha is hard to compare to, though. In certain ways, Japan’s keen regulations have been thematically inspired from matcha’s cultural influence and an exceeding care for the environment tied with Zen Buddhism. 

If nothing else, matcha is an example which provides us an added power of discretion in choosing what we put in our bodies, and telling us that we can be careful in this way beyond the limitations of that stewarding USDA symbol. 

As you explore, keep in mind that we’ve carefully navigated both traditional and organic matcha to bring you the best of both worlds.

So, whether you’re willing to experiment, or feel comfortable with what you’ve found works for you, we stand behind the outstanding quality, and purity of all our matcha, sourced right from its birthplace in Uji, Japan!