As an interior designer and Fashion Institute instructor, I love keeping an eye on the hottest upcoming trends, be it design, decor, health, or lifestyle trends. And while matcha green tea and its fabulous ceremonial accessories have been recently named an interior design trend for 2016, I'm predicting matcha will transcend both the health and design industries to become a lifestyle trend this year and beyond. Here's why.
Not only does matcha outmatch all other teas in terms of its physical health benefits, but from a lifestyle standpoint, the matcha experience also facilitates mental wellbeing through its emphasis on meditation and spirituality. When I asked foremost tea expert and author James Norwood Pratt why matcha is becoming increasing popular in Western culture, he summed up the physical and metaphysical attributes of the tea this way: "Matcha is unique not only for its healthfulness and flavor but because it combines, for Americans, the contradictory attributes of novelty and tradition."
So let me tell you a little about both the novel health benefits and historic tradition of what I think is the next "it" beverage, and you'll see why you should get in on the matcha madness too!
Health: The "Super" Tea
To fully understand the physical benefits of this powdered powerhouse, it's important to understand the difference between matcha tea and regular green tea (the kind you steep in hot water). Both come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis, the plant all tea comes from. However, the difference lies in the way the leaves are processed and how we drink them. The word matcha actually means "ground" or "powdered tea," which sets it apart from tea that is simply infused in water. When drinking matcha the actual leaves are ingested, which is one reason why the nutritional value of matcha is far greater than that of all other tea, including green tea. And though some vendors claim matcha has 137 times more antioxidants than brewed green tea, a more conservative (and probably more accurate) estimate is three times as much, based on the research.
So what else makes Japanese matcha superior to its leafy green counterparts? Another distinguishing characteristic is that matcha is shade grown for several weeks before harvesting, which results in higher levels chlorophyll and the amino acid L-Theanine (more on this later). The best leaves, usually those at the top of the tea bush, are then handpicked and steamed (as opposed to rolled and pan-fired), a gentler process that keeps more of the healthy phytonutrients in the plant's cell wall intact. Steaming halts the oxidation process, resulting in matcha's vibrant green hue. The leaves are then air-dried, not heated or sun-dried because that would further oxidation. Finally, the veins and stems are removed, and the remainder of the leaf is stone-ground into a fine powder known as matcha.
Phew! This painstaking process explains why the price of matcha is often several times that of other teas. As a result of this meticulous process, what ends up in our cup is a drink packed with antioxidants and polyphenols that can help protect against heart disease and cancer, help regulate blood sugar, help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, help detoxify and boost metabolism, and -- get this -- even help prevent aging.
What's more, not only does matcha help boost your health, it also boosts your energy. Like all green tea, matcha naturally contains caffeine, which can enhance your mood and help you concentrate, but matcha is unique in that it also relaxes your body and keeps you calm. Remember that L-Theanine I mentioned earlier? Well, it's the reason matcha was the drink of choice for 12th-century Buddhist monks. L-Theanine is associated with a feeling of "alert calm," which comes in handy during meditation. This rare amino acid creates alpha waves in the brain (as opposed to beta waves, which can result in stress and anxiety) and promotes a state of relaxation, essentially balancing the caffeine by inhibiting its negative side effects. While all tea contains L-Theanine, it's helpful to remember that because matcha involves consuming the actual leaf, there is not only a greater amount of this amino acid in matcha than other teas, but also more caffeine (about the same as a cup of coffee) and more disease-fighting antioxidants than pomegranates or blueberries.
History: An Ancient Ritual Revived
While these superfood health benefits might be enough to inspire you to sip, it's the ancient history of matcha that makes it so special. In fact, the heritage and philosophy of this unique beverage is the reason I predict matcha will become a global lifestyle trend in 2016 and beyond. Matcha is the tea used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony (also known as chado or "the way of tea"), which was greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism. What I learned through my research and from studying the masters, is that tea is more than a beverage; it represents a way of life.
The tea ceremony itself is designed to bring the inner and outer world into greater harmony through the synthesis of food, drink, fashion, calligraphy, choreography, flower arrangement, landscape architecture, antique artifacts, camaraderie, and quiet reflection. This formal ritual is designed to inspire transformation, leading one toward spiritual awakening through the time-honored principles of chado (harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility) demonstrated during each ceremony.
Now, herein lies the secret of matcha. It's not just the process of producing the powdered tea that is time-consuming and laborious, it's also the process of preparing it that's designed to slow you down and cultivate a greater sense of inner peace and outer harmony. Despite the fact meditation was once the stuff of monks in monasteries, these mindful moments are becoming ever more common in Western contemporary culture, and for good reason. With the Internet of things keeping us constantly connected and mentally wired, the ability to unplug is becoming more of a luxury, and I believe tea -- particularly matcha -- can aid in this powerful process of taking a pause. After all, preparing matcha takes time: the water must be heated to just the right temperature, then the powder must be sifted, scooped, and whisked into a frothy frenzy before it's ready to consume.
50 Shades of Green: How to Choose
The highest grades of matcha are often called "ceremonial" in honor of the Japanese tea ceremony in which the principle of ichigo ichie (one chance, one meeting) is central. The concept that every moment is experienced only once in a lifetime is fundamental to this ceremony that seeks to honor guests by offering only the very best. So how do you find the best quality tea for your own personal matcha moment? There are various grades of matcha, so remember that color, texture, and origin matter most when making a selection.
First, look for a vibrant green powder. Chlorophyll is what gives green tea and other plants their verdant color. It's also a powerful detoxifier, helping eliminate chemicals and heavy metals from the body, so look for a bright, nearly neon hue. The greenest leaves come from the top of the tea plant because they receive the most shade and have the most chlorophyll. Brown or yellowish powder may be an indication that oxidation has occurred resulting in tea that tastes more bitter.
Also important is the texture of the powder. Those greener leaves at the top of the plant are also the most soft and supple, so they'll yield a finer powder. The highest quality matcha is both bright in color and fine in texture and should be used for drinking. Lower grades of matcha are best for cooking, baking, and blending.
Last but not least, I cannot emphasize the importance of origin enough when it comes to selecting matcha in particular. The best matcha comes from Japan, and not every "powdered green tea" qualifies as matcha unless it's undergone the Japanese process. For example, the Chinese process of pan- or wok-heating effectively "kills the green" by denaturing enzymes and nutrients in the leaf, thereby reducing the tea's healthy benefits. So when you shop, look for pure Japanese matcha and avoid powdered teas with sugar or other additives.
And remember, while consuming the entire tea leaf results in greater nutritional benefits, it can also result in greater exposure to toxic contaminants. Tea leaves absorb what's in their environment, and heavy metal contaminants vary in the soil, air, and water in which the plants are grown. Multiple studies have found lead levels highest in Chinese tea samples, likely the result of soil and air contaminants caused by coal-fired power plants, which supply 70 percent of energy in China.
Ichigo Ichie: One Opportunity, One Encounter
In Japanese culture the philosophy of ichigo ichie inspires an attitude of honor and gratitude for each moment, one we will never have again. The matcha experience is rooted in the principles of chado and in this very concept that since we may only meet once, let us honor this valuable time together.
Some tea senseis believe that in the process of making tea, you come to see the meaning of life. I don't really know if a beverage can lead to enlightenment, but if it can prevent disease and help me stay alert and calm while cultivating greater peace, harmony, and respect within myself and the world around me, I'm definitely willing to give it a try.
In the words of one tea master, "For a tea to be very good, you need the right combination of heaven, earth, and man." Tea is more than a drink, says Lu-Feng Lu, Director of Wu-Ling Tea Farm. "It can give you spiritual hope."
A special thanks to tea expert Anthony Capobianco for his contribution to this article. Anthony is the founder of Zen Tea Traders and holds multiple certifications from the U.S. Tea Association's Speciality Tea Institute.
For more on health and lifestyle trends follow @BeautyLifeNLove.
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