"Antioxidant" is one of those terms people love to wantonly throw around without much of a grasp on what, exactly, an antioxidant actually is:
"Antioxidants are basically, like, super important because they...um...purify your body of like, toxins and stuff because...science?"
Superfood buzz words slide off the tongue easily, but tend to conceal complex science that takes more than a foggy memory of high school chemistry to really understand.
Matcha is often touted as being exceptionally high in antioxidants, but the benefits of this are often unclear (or exaggerated). We here at Maru Matcha thought it was high time to take a closer look at what antioxidants are, and what they're not.
What are antioxidants?
In order to understand what antioxidants are, we first need to understand the process of oxidation:
At its most basic, oxidation occurs when an atom or a compound loses electrons.
When you bite into an apple and it turns brown, that's oxidation at work. When you leave your bike out in the rain all winter to rust (like I did), that's oxidation too.
Oxygen is key to survival on earth, but it's also a highly volatile element. During oxidation, oxygen steals electrons from other atoms, making them weak. This is the part of the story where free radicals come in: atoms like to stay as stable as possible, and to do this they try to gain electrons, often by bonding with other atoms to share electrons. When a bond between two atoms is weak and splits, free radicals form.
Free radicals aren't always bad - they form naturally during metabolisation to neutralise bacteria - but they also form as a result of exterior factors like stress, pollution, radiation, and cigarette smoke. Free radicals have the nasty tendency to attack healthy cells in your body, which can lead to diseases like cancer and heart disease, but also to signs of premature aging.
To fight the proliferation of free radicals and oxidation, we need antioxidants.
Antioxidants are like good friends: when an atom is down on its luck and missing an electron, an antioxidant will stabilise the atom by handing over one of its own.
Antioxidants come in a vast array of shapes, sizes, and forms, but the most common include Vitamin A, C, E, beta-carotene, polyphenols, and flavonoids.
Leafy greens, berries, and spices are loaded with antioxidants, but so are coffee and chocolate. Tea, and in particular green tea contains huge reserves of a special kind of antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG.
Antioxidants prevent disease and make me look younger?
Well, kind of. For all the seeming popularity of antioxidant-rich foods, there's still surprisingly little consensus in the scientific community as to the precise effect they have on our bodies.
At the heart of the matter, eating antioxidant-rich foods is just a regular part of a healthy lifestyle. Eat your veggies, drink your tea, get enough fresh air, and the chances you'll feel healthy and fit are pretty, pretty good. But this isn't what we're talking about here. What we want to know is whether antioxidants, the kind of antioxidants in matcha, that is, are going to make you look younger and prevent cancer.
The short answer is no.
We've said this once, and we'll say it again: there are no miracle cures or easy answers when it comes to science.
There are dozens of factors that would affect the way in which antioxidants might have a positive or inverse effect on your body. As one large-scale study conducted at Tufts University suggests, antioxidants perform different functions according to the way they are absorbed, when, and in combination with what. Selenium, for example, has been found to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and increase the risk of others. Vitamins C and E have been found to improve recovery after cancer treatment in some cases, but not others.
The bottom line: Don't get caught up in the disease-fighting, anti-aging value of certain foods just because someone tells you they're "high in antioxidants".
Antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries, chocolate, grapes, and yes, matcha green tea are not a miracle cure for cancer or old age. Food companies who make claims like this are being unfair to their customers.
Antioxidants in matcha
Matcha contains particularly high levels of flavonoids in the form of catechins, and in particular a catechin antioxidant EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate) which is only found in tea.
EGCG has gained a big reputation in recent years as the focal point of innumerable scientific studies pointing to its potential health benefits.
Here's a sampling of the the many, many health benefits EGCG has been linked to:
- Lung, colon, esophagus, mouth, stomach, small intestine, kidney, pancreas, and mammary gland cancer prevention
- Diabetes prevention
- Heart disease prevention
- Bone density improvement
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Improvements in metabolism
In each of these cases, there is rigorous scientific evidence to support or partially support these claims. But to illustrate what we mean by saying that science is not a straight and narrow road, let's take a look at how some of these claims are written about:
This famous study from the University of Colorado suggests that matcha has the highest levels of antioxidants of any form of tea:
. . . results indicate that the concentration of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) available from drinking matcha is 137 times greater than the amount of EGCG available from China Green Tips green tea, and at least three times higher than the largest literature value for other green teas.
This study from Oregon State University suggests that matcha green tea catechins can be effective on oxidative stress, but that more research is needed:
Tea catechins and polyphenols are effective scavengers of reactive oxygen species in vitro . . . In humans, modest transient increases in plasma antioxidant capacity have been demonstrated following the consumption of tea and green tea catechins. The effects of tea and green tea catechins on biomarkers of oxidative stress, especially oxidative DNA damage, appear very promising in animal models, but data on biomarkers of in vivo oxidative stress in humans are limited.
This study from the Unilever Institute also suggests that green tea's health benefits are promising but need more study:
Tea consumption consistently leads to a significant increase in the antioxidant capacity of the blood. Beneficial effects of increased antioxidant capacity in the body may be the reduction of oxidative damage to important biomolecules. The scientific support is strongest for the protection of DNA from oxidative damage after black or green tea consumption. However, the quality of the studies now available is insufficient to draw firm conclusions.
This study from the Institute for Natural Medecine in Toyama, Japan on matcha's effect on diabetes says,
. . . Matcha protects against hepatic and renal damage through the suppression of renal AGE accumulation, by decreases in hepatic glucose, triglyceride, and total cholesterol levels, and by its antioxidant activities.
This study from the University of Zagreb, meanwhile, suggests that matcha has the highest antioxidant capacity of any tea:
The most abundant phenolic constituents of green tea were flavan-3-ols, of which EGCG was prevailing in all teas (94.54–357.07 mg/L). The highest content of caffeine, as the most abundant methylxanthine, was determined in powdered green tea [matcha]. . . all green teas exhibited significant antioxidant capacity in vitro, which was in correlation with their phenolic content, confirming that green tea is one of the best dietary sources of antioxidants.
Wait, why are you telling me all this?
It may seem odd that a small business like Maru Matcha is trying to clarify and tone down some of the most exciting health claims made about matcha green tea.
Why would we call attention to reasonable doubt when all our competitors are talking the big talk?
Because we care about our customers and the decisions they make, that's why.
We here at Maru Matcha don't love matcha just because it's going to help us lose weight, look younger, or prevent horrible diseases. We love matcha because it tastes delicious, makes us feel well. Well may sound flimsy in contrast to all the big talk you hear on other health blogs, but we think this is the best claim we can possibly make: matcha green tea keeps our minds feeling alert and our bodies feeling clean and ready for anything. That's wellness. That's feeling well. And we think that's pretty cool.