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Lately, green tea and matcha have become so mainstream in people’s food vocabulary that you practically see the ingredients everywhere!
From the non-dairy delicious iced tea blends (like the one that I’m sipping right now) to the matcha green tea powder form in decadent green tea chocolate cake and cupcakes like these little guys that always seem to make my mouth water!
It’s very comforting to know that when you are in control of making your tea, food, desserts, etc., you can choose deliciously, high-quality ingredients with nutritional benefits.
What’s not so comforting, sadly enough, is that most of the green tea shown on labels in packaged foods today is purely for the taste and the hype and bears little resemblance to the real green tea, or to tea at all.
The name is so trendy that food companies use it as a marketing ploy to boost sales.
Looking at how popular green tea is today, one would think it a bit strange that even though so many of us come from families that started every morning with a cup of tea – we, ourselves, stumbled into green tea at a later date in our tea drinking lives.
But in reality, that’s not so strange at all.
Despite all of the advantages that green tea has over its sibling, black tea (black tea being Great Britain’s favorite), green tea is the late bloomer in the game. And it’s all related to the world’s culture and history.
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A Long Time Ago in A Galaxtea Far, Far Away …
In the beginning, green tea was brewed from select tea leaves that were previously processed very carefully to keep them from becoming black tea.
Wait a minute. What?
That’s right. In case you didn’t already know, black tea is simply green tea that, with a little nudge, ventured over to the dark side. One of the main factors that separate black tea from green tea is the amount of processing (aka fermentation) that the leaves have been subjected to.
For green tea, the leaves are steamed or pan-roasted as soon as they have been air dried for a couple of hours while the leaves for black tea are left to fully oxidize (ferment) before being dried, thus the darkening of the leaves.
This longer oxidation time brings out a bit more caffeine in your black tea so that it may have a more potent effect when you need something (other than coffee) to stay up late at night studying, working, partying, or whatever it is you choose to do with your nights!
On the other hand, the limited oxidation that green tea is exposed to means that there are more antioxidants left in its leaves than in black tea.
The Phytochemical that makes up the color of “green tea” is one of the antioxidants that can help fight off the effects of free radicals. Your body can use it against the harmful effects of unstable molecules. Green tea is so beneficial to your complete health that artisans use it in their magical blossoming creations commonly known as a Flowering or Blossoming Tea.
These mystical creations are not only wonderful for you because of the benefits you will enjoy, but their beauty as well will leave you mesmerized!
A Brief History of Green Tea
The story began thousands of years ago, long before Newton wondered why the apple he threw up in the air came falling back down and then formulated his theory of gravity.
The legend says that on one fine day, the Emperor Shen Nung of China forgot to cover his pot of boiling water and later discovered that gravity had dropped leaves into the pot, making his hot water taste delicious! And this, my friends, was the beginning of something marvelous!!!
This was not only the discovery of a magical drink that would be full of benefits for our physical health but one for our mental and emotional health as well.
Made in China
Whether or not the legend is true, we need to thank the Chinese people for being the original geniuses who gave birth to the notion of processing tea leaves via limited oxidation.
They are also the first ones that made sure the leaves still contained high levels of catechin and retained most of their natural green color (take that, artificial coloring).
After being air dried, carefully pan roasted, manually hand-rolled, and dried again, the tea leaves are then ready for our brewing pleasure.
From Royalty To The Masses
In the beginning, green tea in China was strictly used for its medicinal benefits – and also to help people pull an all-nighter. Then it became a huge hit at high-status social events where tea was enjoyed greatly, but only by the royalty.
It would take several more centuries before green tea made its way into the dining rooms of the commoners including America’s tea culture.
Today, in addition to other popular types of Chinese teas such as black tea and white tea, China produces more than 1.7 billion pounds of green tea and also exports half a billion pounds of it to make up for 80 percent of global demands. Talk about world domination!
Tea’s Westward Journey
So, how green tea found its way from China to the western kettle is probably part of a long story of centuries-old cross-border smuggling and botanical-espionage of both black and green tea.
After being discovered by a few Spanish priests, tea continued its journey of becoming expensive and a sought-after commodity in Europe.
Tea drinking started becoming a favorite in the courts of the British blue blood. The high taxes placed on tea and the high price of tea itself triggered the effort for England to stop relying on China as its sole source of tea.
You can probably guess what would happen with an item that was high in demand, came with a high price tag and a very limited supply. You guessed it! Tea smuggling became common practice.
Since England at the time was in control of almost everything that had soil, including India, the British Crown wanted to make India a contender in the production of tea so that they could stop depending on China.
This effort involved getting spies into China to secretly collect the right information, seeds, and experts that would be later used to develop India into a world-class tea producer. The plan worked, and here we have a great plot for a new blockbuster movie!
The Evolution of Japanese Green Tea
Japan is another place where green tea is a common beverage. If you order a cup of tea and forget to mention the word green, you would still be very likely to get “Ocha” – the Japanese term for green tea.
But this custom didn’t start until the first century, approximately two thousand years after the Chinese enjoyed green tea as their daily drink.
Japanese Tea Ceremony
It has been said that there were Japanese Buddhist monks who brought back the finest tea leaves and tea seeds back from the mainland and started cultivating tea in Japan.
The Japanese tea culture was started and perfected in monasteries before it developed into the one that we know today.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony is one of the unique cultural developments that put green tea on a high pedestal of importance.
In Japan, one can take part in a lovely tea ceremony in which you are served tea with so many ceremonial steps that you couldn’t help but wonder how angry your host would get if suddenly, you changed your mind and asked for coffee instead. Best not to try and find out!
Now, of course, a gorgeous tea ceremony wouldn’t make much sense on a day where you have to run and catch a train, but having the time, the spiritual and philosophical value behind the ceremony gives a Zen-kind-of-aura to the perfectly served cup.
Just thinking about it soothes my soul and reminds me why I opt for a healthy brew of green tea rather than that green tea flavored instant alternative.
Japanese Green Tea vs. Chinese Green Tea
Japanese green tea is processed from leaves that have gone through steaming rather than roasting. This process brings out a richer green coloring in the leaves and a dense, leafy aftertaste instead of a yellow hue and warm earthy flavor that you get when brewing Chinese green tea.
But in the end, your choice will be determined by whatever your palette finds more pleasing and not by the process used. Because when you boil it down, the antioxidant benefits in both Japanese and Chinese green teas are not distinctly different.
Hand Me The Matcha
Ahhh, the lovely Matcha! When talking about different green teas, you can’t help but include Matcha in the conversation. What is Matcha?
Well, the name is probably catchy enough to be the name of a popular dating app (dibs on the idea), but tea enthusiasts have long known matcha as “green tea powder.”
Hailing from early second century Chinese dynasties as a way to easily store semi-processed, steamed tea leaves in brick form, the leaves were crushed and roasted before being brewed in hot water.
The preparation of this malty, green tea powder later developed into a Zen Buddhist ritual which then was brought to Japan and continued to become an essential element in ceremonial green tea preparation.
Matcha was even used to prepare warriors for an important battle.
Health Benefits of Green Tea
By now, we know that green tea is beneficial to our health. But to get the maximum advantages, we need to use only pure leaves from tea plantations in which the plants have received shade from direct sunlight for several weeks.
Reduced sunlight ensures that as much chlorophyll as possible is produced in the plants, encouraging the leaves to turn an opulent, dark green color.
This whole process, in turn, increases the health benefits received from the leaves. So much so, that people refer to them as “super health benefits”.
Fountain Of Longevity
But how super is green tea anyway? Let’s put numbers into our discussion.
Statistics say that the average life expectancy of the Japanese people is quite high. And even though that may be connected to other genetic and environmental factors, a lengthy period of research unveiled that green tea plays a tremendous role here.
From a whopping 40,530 Japanese adult respondents, it was revealed that those who drank five or more cups of green tea per day were significantly less likely to die during the 11 years study period.
All thanks to the main polyphenol in green tea called catechin which is responsible for the following:
● Decreasing cholesterol in the blood
● Reducing body fat
● Preventing cancer
● Inhibiting high blood pressure
With all of those super benefits, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Queen of England herself drinks green tea rather than black to keep her healthy enough to run the monarchy. Long live Green Tea!
Green is not the New Black…Yet.
With all of the remarkable benefits already known and those still being studied, green tea is rapidly gaining momentum.
But if green tea is indeed so good, then why does the Queen (whom I envision being served her tea from a beautiful, traditional, copper Simplex Kettle) and her people, along with 80% of Americans drink black tea? Why can’t the green dethrone the black? The answer is less philosophical and more practical.
Back in the early days, black tea fared better and lasted longer during the long sea voyages than green tea. Apart from staying fresh longer, it was also more available and was not as expensive as green tea.
Remember the story about England grooming India to be China’s rival in tea production? It turned out that the new tea plantation that England developed in India was also best for producing black tea.
Add its growing affordability and the declining price of sugar from the Caribbean to the mix, and you’ve got the Brits partying with black tea instead of green!
Even though the world has changed much since then, some things are still the same; green tea is still harder to produce, less available on the market, and more expensive than black tea.
Green Tea and Pop Culture
With more people today craving a healthier life offered by green tea, and even more joining the movement without understanding the unique essence of it, it’s clear that the “green tea” label is something that could surely sell. And quite effortlessly at that!
With a gentle push from savvy marketing and stories of oriental philosophies, the term matcha, and green tea have materialized into more of a consumer goods labeling for modern foods and beverages.
Most of these are artificial tastes and colors rather than the actual item with the real superfood benefits. Others might mix the authentic green tea in their ingredients, but in such a tiny proportion that it wouldn’t result in much of a significant worth.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop people from buying and enjoying the products. Green tea chocolate bars, anyone?
The Economy and Chemistry
We can’t blame the food manufacturers for giving the consumers what they want. Even though, in the end, most of what the customer is paying for is just the taste.
The real reason why your “purchased” green tea chocolate cake uses artificial green tea flavor or why your bottled green tea drink contains only 5% green tea extract is the economic scale.
The high processing cost of green tea powder doesn’t justify its use as the primary food ingredient. You wouldn’t want to pay for a slice of cake that cost more than a rib eye steak, would you?
Another factor to consider is food’s chemistry. For those of us who have probably forgotten our high school chemistry lessons; once you process food, the chemicals will change.
Storing food over a period also alters the molecular compound. That makes it challenging and expensive to retain all the benefits of green tea in consumer food products.
Cautionary Tale: Pollution In Your Brew
There has been growing concern about just how much pollution can affect the amount of lead inside tea leaves because tea plants have a tendency to absorb much more pollution than other plants.
If you are truly into green tea and are concerned with your health and the health of your loved ones, it’s important that you take the time to make sure that your green tea comes sourced from certified pollution-free, organic locations.
Doing your homework will save you, literally, from headaches and ensure that your tea contains more chlorophyll than lead.
In short, don’t just buy whatever package you see that lists green tea as one of the ingredients and take for granted that it has to be healthy. Be a smart and informed consumer!
Go Green. Or Take Note!
Is green tea good for your health? Yes. Scientifically proven by lots of research and that research continues.
Is green tea delicious? Absolutely! Though “unscientifically” proven by myself as well as millions of other green tea lovers!
Should you jump into green tea territory? Well, that depends on several factors.
If you are in for all the benefits and the taste of this superfood, be prepared to invest more time, effort, and bucks to acquire the real deal! Much more so than one would usually lay out for black tea.
But if you’re just in this for the fun of it, and to follow the trend, then you’ll get by just fine with the artificially sweetened green tea powder mixes – which is okay, as long as you’re ok with the added artificial flavors and coloring. Are you???