Ordering a matcha in 2016 can feel like stepping into a Soul Cycle studio. Scintillating constructs of sleek millennial design, heavy lighting, and carefully curated poses are the norm. Behind their images lies the insistence that both fads will make you look and feel good because they are uniquely good for you. In the case of matcha peddlers, they try to convince you that their sometimes tasty, sometimes chalky brews aren’t just a novel treat, but a secret medicinal potion. It can soothe and strengthen your mind, body, and soul. But just like Soul Cycle, the cult of matcha as the apotheosis of health is built on a tradition of pure hokum.
Matcha is essentially a type of stone-ground powdered green tea. Sometime over a millennium ago (no one’s quite sure when) it developed in China, then flowed into Japan, where its cultivation, manufacture, and presentation were perfected for medieval tea ceremonies. The powder was sifted into a special bowl then whisked with hot (but not boiling) water until it frothed, and all the leafy particulate was perfectly suspended. Some ceremonies produced a thick, paste-like mixture with twice the powder and half the water, while others yielded small, thick, but distinctly liquid bowls with a bright green color, creamy texture, and multi-faceted flavor. An increasingly popular everyday drink in Japan, the powder also sees plenty of play in baked goods. But it’s still mostly viewed as an element of a ceremonial tradition. And up until about two years ago it was a rarity outside of a few niche tea houses in America.
Then in 2014, a few hip young Americans discovered matcha and decided that it made them feel great: energized, calm, and healthy. As is the wont of this demographic, they decided to become the apostles of their new, (to them) esoteric “health food” discovery in America and started launching high profile and well-reviewed matcha venues (like Williamsburg’s MatchaBar) and distributors (like Panatea). They hyped matcha in potent American terms: as a disruptive beverage set to replace coffee for the health-conscious by merit of its super-food properties.
This marketing gambit worked beautifully; within a year, matcha was everywhere in New York and how-to matcha brewing videos made their way across the internet—especially on health and fitness blogs. It’s even attracted the attention of the Gwyneth Paltrow crowd. Stripped of ceremony, it’s been positioned as a versatile beverage, ready for mass sales in bottles to efficiently pour its benefits into every body in America.
But as with every health food trend whose devotees reach a critical mass of obsession and diffusion, some of the drink’s brashest acolytes now make claims on health blogs that are patently and dangerously bogus—like that matcha can prevent cancer, diabetes, or even HIV.
“Exploiting claims like [those is] simply irresponsible,” says Jess Mandelbaum, part of the founder couple of Panatea. She maintains that responsible companies like her’s make only well-supported claims on matcha’s health benefits. However within the same breath she claims that chlorophyll, that thing every plant has, “is known to help detoxify,” which is hardly a well-established claim outside of the echo chamber of certain alternative medicine communities.
Even distributors’ and bloggers’ less extreme claims, like those on the generally positive effects of its antioxidants, are often overstated. (The antioxidants in matcha aren’t even the most potent variety.) Communicated as fact by folks who maybe read a study once, the vast majority of these benefits are inconclusive. They’re also the same health benefits you get from plain green tea.
Granted, you get more of those at best beneficial, at least harmless components by drinking a whole leaf ground into water than whatever leaches out of a leaf into hot water. But to say that this makes a cup of matcha better than a few cups of green tea is the vitamin fallacy: the belief that bombing your system with excessive quantities of a good thing is de facto healthier, when in fact it’s usually neutral to harmful. Even if matcha boosters could prove they weren’t just promoting a tea slurry vitamin, their point’s still undercut by the common matcha-trend act of mixing it with milk or icing it, which lessens the absorption of antioxidants and the like. And of course sugar, which most cafes sprinkle into their matcha drinks and major retailers add all too liberally into their packaged matcha blends for good measure, isn’t helping either.
None of this is to say that matcha sucks. I love a well-made matcha; it has a deeply satisfying umami flavor. But if you’re drinking it primarily for your health, stop it, because there’s really no definitive proof that it’s doing you any good—much less the level of good you likely think it is.