Vivid launched a range of zero sugar, zero sweetener matcha drinks in June

Vivid launched a range of zero sugar, zero sweetener matcha drinks in June

For something that has been around as long as matcha has – literally centuries – it is strange to say that matcha is having a "moment" in the beverage market. Yet that is precisely the case as matcha has become a "go to" functional beverage ingredient of late, expanding outside of tea and into a variety of drinks categories.

It's hard to really call matcha new. Matcha's origins go back over 800 years to its birthplace in China. Made from dried green tea leaves that are ground into a fine powder, matcha was originally consumed as a Zen-Buddhist ceremonial drink in China where it was (and still is) whisked with hot water into a foamy, rich green coloured drink. The green tea leaves used to make matcha come from tea bushes that are shaded (to block sunlight) a few weeks before harvest to optimise taste and nutritional content. Shading helps boost levels of chlorophyll, the green pigment in leaves that plays a crucial role in photosynthesis. Shading green tea leaves also gives the leaves a darker green hue, and makes them thinner and more delicate.

The health case for matcha is where it shines. Unlike "regular" green tea made from tea leaves that are steeped in hot or boiling water, the entire tea leaf is ground into a fine powder and is consumed with matcha. This enables matcha to be referred to as a "whole food" nutritional source, since the consumer is ingesting the whole tea leaf. This has proven to be marketing gold to suppliers of matcha that often highlight matcha's impressive nutritional content relative to "regular" green tea.

For example, Torrance, CA-based Aiya America says that a single serving of matcha delivers the nutritional equivalent of ten cups of steeped green tea. The company maintains that matcha provides over four times the amino acid L-theanine (39mg versus 9mg), 1.3 times the catechins (242mg versus 188.8mg) and over 172 times the protein (578mg versus 3.35mg) of a green tea bag. Matcha green tea is also said to provide nearly 15 times the antioxidants of wild blueberries, with an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) value of 1,384 versus 93 for wild blueberries.

Controversy

Whether or not these numbers translate into verifiable health benefits is the subject of controversy. While there is excitement about the relatively high level of L-theanine in matcha (an ingredient that imparts an umami flavour and is also said to have calming and stress-relieving benefits), scientific evidence linking those levels with specific health benefits has been lacking. The European Food Safety Authority issued an opinion in 2011 that tea-based L-theanine does not improve cognitive function, help maintain normal sleep, cut menstrual discomfort, or reduce psychological stress.

However, questions about health claims have not really dulled enthusiasm for matcha on the new products front. Matcha is currently trending in ready-to-drink tea products including MatchaBar iced matcha tea from Brooklyn, NY-based MatchaBar LLC, Vivid Matcha Green Tea Drink from UK-based Vivid Vitality, and Kiyora Matcha Latte from Indonesia-based PT Hokkan Indonesia.  

Innovation

Some might question how matcha can be differentiated from "regular" green tea in a ready-to-drink product since the origin of the tea ingredient is not immediately evident. One company that has found an ingenious way to address this is Hong Kong-based Roku Roku Group with its "Or Tea?" bottled matcha drink which is sold in France, the UK, and Spain. "Or Tea?" matcha "twist & shake" uses under-the-cap technology which houses matcha powder underneath the top cap to maintain the integrity of the matcha powder. When the consumer twists the bottle cap, tea powder drops into the liquid below; shaking the bottle produces a bright green-coloured drink.  Under-the-cap technology ensures that the full nutritional value of matcha is maintained until the beverage is ready to enjoy.

Future growth for matcha may lie outside of the tea category. One of the more interesting applications for matcha is in alcoholic beverages. Japan's Suntory offers Suntory Aromatic Matcha Kaoru Osake (aromatic matcha liqueur), an 8% abv drink packaged in a 50cl bottle and promoted as a new way to enjoy matcha. Also new in Japan, Kaldi Futto Nomu (shake drink) matcha latte no osake (matcha latte cocktail) is a 17cl, 5% abv product that piggybacks on the popularity of non-alcoholic matcha latte drinks.

Matcha is also beginning to appear in functional drinks, suggesting yet another growth path. Ito En North America recently launched Matcha Love Matcha Colada in the US, a drink made with coconut water, matcha, and green tea that is pitched as a natural source of electrolytes. A mood enhancer and natural energy booster, Matcha Love blurs the line between coconut water, green tea, and energy drinks.  

Caffeine

Somewhat less blurry is Matcha Magic bio energy drink from Aschheim, Germany-based ZEEKEI.  Flavoured with matcha, mango, and citrus, Matcha Magic is an organic energy drink which delivers a generous dose of caffeine (30mg per 100ml of beverage). Caffeine is one functional ingredient that matcha is well known for, with one important twist. Matcha ingredient supplier Aiya America says that matcha provides "three to six hours of sustained, natural energy" thanks to the presence of natural caffeine said to metabolise more slowly than caffeine found in coffee because of how the caffeine combines with the L-theanine naturally found in matcha. This extended release feature reportedly makes matcha superior to other caffeine-based energy enhancers like coffee or energy drinks which may be more prone to producing a "caffeine crash."

So is "naturally-occurring caffeine" really "better for you" than caffeine that has been added to foods or drinks? It is unclear if this is the case, but research suggests that consumers are open to the possibility. The International Food Information Council Foundation's 2015 Food and Health Survey of American consumers found that 47% were "not sure" if caffeine that is naturally occurring in foods and beverages has the same effect as added caffeine.

Consumer awareness 

If there is anything holding matcha back from wider consumer acceptance, it may be poor levels of consumer awareness in some country markets. Canadean's 2015 ingredient survey found that just 2% of consumers globally say they are "not familiar" with green tea, but that number jumps to 57% for matcha. There are certainly exceptions. In Japan, just 5% of consumers are "not familiar" with matcha. But this "not familiar" number jumps to 66% in the US, 75% in the UK and 81% in the Netherlands. For matcha to really take off, drinks makers are going to have to work on those awareness numbers.

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