Yes, matcha, like most teas and many foods, contains lead. As it’s a low amount, and naturally occurring, it’s typically not a cause of concern. But it varies by region, and non-Japanese matcha may warrant more caution.
Matcha tea is generally a healthy drink and easier on the body than coffee. But studies have shown some matcha powders that contain lead. In rare cases, the amount exceeds the advised limits set by official agencies.
Lead and other heavy metals, in high doses, can harm the body, especially the circulatory and central nervous systems.
That sounds scary, but it’s not something you usually need to worry about. That’s because lead is common in soil and therefore in plants and other things we eat.
Moreover, if you’re drinking the best (Japanese) matcha, you’re almost totally guaranteed it’s safe.
If you know the limits and the differences in quality, you can easily make safer buying choices and not worry about lead. Go cheap, though, and you take a bit more risk.
How much lead is OK in matcha?
Lead is the most common contaminant in urban soil because of discharge from cars, factories, etc. It makes its way into fruits, vegetables, and products like baby food and chocolate.
Official agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) set limits on safe levels of lead in food.
Recommended limits of lead vary by country; often quite widely.
|Vietnam||2 mg/kg body weight daily|
|Germany||5 mg/kg body weight daily|
|Canada, India, Thailand, and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations||10 mg/kg body weight daily|
As a reference, one study looked at green tea samples from 26 tea plantations in different areas. It found an average value of 1.07 mg/kg, but a huge range. The level also depended on the season and type. They concluded the lead levels (and many other levels) were not excessive in green tea.
So, what about matcha specifically. The best study I could find had levels of 29.8 micrograms (µg)/kg. A microgram is 1/1000 of a milligram. So that’s 0.0298 mg/kg, which is about 1.5% of the strictest limit (Vietnam) or 0.2% of the WHO limit.
In other words, matcha seems to have very little lead. Certainly not a level of concern, but levels can vary
What types of matcha should I avoid if I want to avoid lead?
Matcha is produced in two main grades: ceremonial and culinary. (Then there are sub-grades.) The former is for drinking while the latter is used as an ingredient in other foods and drinks.
Ceremonial grade matcha is produced using younger green tea leaves, whereas culinary grade uses old ones. But both are, comparatively “young.”
Younger tea leaves typically contain less heavy metal than older ones. Tea leaves have been found to absorb more minerals from the soil as they stay longer in the fields.
Putting all this information together points to a conclusion that matcha is not only safe it’s safer. Why? Because matcha is made from young leaves and generally consumed within the year after it’s picked.
A study showed that matcha powders from Japan and South Korea have the lowest amount of lead. Matcha from China had the highest. Despite these data, contamination levels are not high enough for concern.
They’re way below the limits set by agencies, so they would appear quite safe to consume. The only area you might want to consult with an expert on is if you’re pregnant. Though many pregnant and nursing women also love and enjoy green tea matcha. Rather than lead, a bigger concern is probably the caffeine levels.
How can I tell which matcha doesn’t have lead?
Organics are probably safest, though even then, it depends on how “organic” is defined.
There’s no sure visual way to say that a product lead-free, though again, lead-free isn’t realistic in most cases. And we consume (and breathe) trace amounts of all sorts of hazardous things, which our body can easily keep us safe from.
Also, manufacturers aren’t required to declare if the leaves they use contain lead.
But, that said, one of the fastest ways to tell whether your matcha has no lead is from its origin. Green tea leaves from Japan have been found to be especially low in lead.
Aside from Japan, environmentally conscious California is known to produce low-lead matcha. California Proposition 65 (Safe Water and Toxic Enforcement Act) states that products originating from plants and herbs merit a warning if the presence of lead exceeds 0.5 µg. This level is almost 1,000 times lower than what’s known to cause health issues for pregnant women.
Do the country and soil matter for lead in matcha?
The quickest answer is YES, they do. But it’s a matter of correlation vs. causation. In other words, some countries may generally have higher lead levels (correlation). This doesn’t mean that the country’s soil or techniques produce higher lead levels (causation).
There are several studies that back up claims of different tea leaf varieties with higher lead content than others within the same country.
Lead is absorbed by the green tea plants from the soil. It can come from nearby construction areas, fungicides, contaminated water, and waste disposal. It has been proven that the country of origin plays a role in the lead content of their green tea and matcha products. A study that tested this revealed that the lead contamination level was lowest in leaves from Nepal and Sri Lanka and highest in China and India.
Is there lead-free matcha?
It has also been proven that even organic matcha has trace amounts of lead. As such, it’s quite hard to find a completely lead-free matcha product.
I prefer to peer-reviewed studies from journals, but there are plenty of credible studies by private organizations that are also reviewed. They just don’t necessarily fall under the same rigorous ethical standards.
A medically reviewed study by ConsumerLab mentioned that none of the products it reviewed had concerning levels of lead. The study was mainly concerned with polyphenol levels, though it did look at other elements in green tea. It also has some clickbaity language and some alarmist warnings.
Hopefully, based on the above, fear of such low amounts of lead isn’t preventing you from enjoying the taste, energy boost, and overall pleasure of green tea and matcha. It doesn’t even seem to account for the mild side effects some people experience. As always, discuss any concerns and personal health issues with your doctor.